Chrysler Zombie Watch 8: "We Have to Do Business Different"

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

I can hear TTAC’s audience wincing at the headline. It should be “differently,” not “different.” Of course, if you imagine this executive exhortation spoken by an Italian mobster—a reasonable re-imagining given the fact that Chrysler is now controlled by Fiat—it still doesn’t work. In that case, it should be “We gotta do business different.” Preferably preceded by the word “Hey.” This ode to illiteracy appeared in a dealer document comparing Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep advertising’s effectiveness to that of Ford and Toyota. (Guess who scored higher?) So, did anyone notice the literary mistake? I’m serious. You can concentrate on what Chrysler plans to do different before it goes Tango Uniform, or you can wonder why these guys never, ever sweat the details.

Actually, it’s more about causation than a straight either/or choice. To survive, Chrysler has to learn how to sweat the details: to make interiors, engines and transmissions that don’t suck and fit them together in such a way as they don’t break, fail or fall apart. And then, gradually, inexorably, make them better, until they’re better than all their competition’s. As for branding, it’s no biggie. Jeeps go off road, Dodges go the distance and Chryslers have class. Off you go, boys. Don’t forget to pay me my $14,312,130,642 when you get the chance.

But noooooo.

“To save Chrysler Group LLC, Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne has to create a mid-size sedan that can compete with the world’s best,” Bloomberg asserts. “It’s a three- to five-year job, and he may have two years to do it.”

You can forgive the ADD-afflicted media for its ongoing love affair with The Next Big Thing. But the days are gone when Chrysler could join its cross-town rivals in pinning its hopes for a turnaround on a single vehicle. Ford and GM have the cash needed to sustain the delusion that what they really really need is a hit vehicle—instead of say, a gradual return to respectability via improved version of the products they already have. Chrysler can’t even afford the vig.

Even if Chrysler were rolling in dough, what are the odds that the former bankrupt can create a box-fresh Camry killer in a truncated product development cycle? The automaker behind the Sebring and Avenger is going to build a brand new class-leading vehicle in the most competitive segment of the market in the most competitive market in the world? Led by the head of Fiat? It’s just as preposterous now as it was before Uncle Sam decided to save American jobs by handing Chrysler’s keys to the Italians.

And even if they did build it, who would buy it? It’s not like Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota owners are wondering when the hell Chrysler’s going to offer them something demonstrably better than what they’re already driving. How do you get satisfied consumers to buy a vehicle from a company widely known for creating crap cars, whose taxpayer-provided existence is, in and of itself, off-putting? You know; if they were buying. Which, in the main, they aren’t.

We shall not see. Meanwhile, all the rest.

Sometime in the next two weeks, Sr. Marchionne will present his product and marketing plans for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Mopar (not to mention Fiat and Alfa) to the nine-member Chrysler board. Huh? While I’m a firm believer that intelligence gathering is a sign of intelligence, I’d kinda hoped that the head of the semi-nationalized automaker would have had a clear idea of what he was going to do with Chrysler before our elected representatives put him in charge of the aforementioned [nearasdammit] $15 billion “investment.” Forty-two days later, what do we know? Nothing.

Whatever Marchionne’s plan may be, Chrysler’s nine-member Board of Directors is bound to rubber stamp it. With each day’s delay, the pressure for doing something builds. With each day’s delay, the natural human tendency to consolidate power in the hands of a “man of action” grows. (Pretty good for a Canadian accountant eh?) I’m not saying Machionne is hiding behind a cult of personality. Oh wait, I am.

Whether it emanates from Marchionne’s minions or represents a mainstream meme, Chrysler’s press is increasingly focused on Sergio’s style. Bloomberg breathlessly reports the Divine Mr. M’s arsenal of cell phones, minimal sleep, and five days vacation per year. Well so what?

What we need from Chrysler is proof that they’re doing things differently, not a sneak peak into the seven highly effective work habits of sleep-deprived automotive executives. And while a[nother] new Chrysler sedan could be a showcase for New Chrysler’s capabilities, the only real proof that Chrysler has refashioned its corporate culture would be found on the showroom floor, in its existing products.

It’s not there. And it won’t be there. Even if Chrysler’s Best and Brightest hadn’t already headed for the hills (or away from the Hills), even if the company’s employees work full tilt, the company simply doesn’t have enough time to fix all the quality issues bedeviling its vehicles. And it certainly doesn’t have the ten years needed to correct a well-earned reputation for also-ran products.

Zombies are different from you and me. But they are not so different from each other. Whether its GM’s headless chicken product plans or Sergio’s [theoretically] carefully-crafted vision for Chrysler’s future, the undead are doomed. Anyone who thinks any different is deluded. “It has to work this time,” an unnamed Chrysler board member supposedly told Bloomies. “A patient can only be operated on so many times before he dies.” What if they’re already dead? Fuhgeddaboutit. If only we could.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

More by Robert Farago

Join the conversation
2 of 22 comments
  • Westcott Westcott on Sep 16, 2009

    Oops. This should be in the editorial section!!!

  • Joeveto3 Joeveto3 on Sep 21, 2009

    Just this weekend, I saw a truckload of brand new Sebrings headed to dealer lots...And I pondered that sight and wondered...Who in the hell is going to buy those things? That was one truck with a handful of new Sebrings. To think they are still cranking them out, with the hope of finding buyers...Preposterous.

  • TheMrFreeze Possibly a smart move by their parent company. If they position Mitsubishi here in the US to be a bargain brand, maybe build more low cost cars in places like Thailand (where the Mirage is/was built), they could possibly usurp the low-end segment of the US market the Chinese would have tried to occupy had the 100% tariff not happened. Mitsubishi does have the advantage of at least some brand recognition and an existing dealership network here in the US to start with.
  • Tassos Consumers see the limitations of current EVs and EV infrastructure and charging on the road.This is why they have turned to hybrids and esp Plug-in Hybrids (those who can charge them at home) big way.
  • ToolGuy I wonder what the Libertarians are up to this week?
  • Chiefmonkey Bet on it getting 5-10 MPG less than the advertised rating.
  • FreedMike Maybe they will be the Alpine distributors.