What's to Become of Chrysler?
Chrysler has certainly changed since emerging from the ashes of the Maxwell Motor Company in 1925, spending the better part of the 20th century purveying all manner of car to the American public. The current century has seen the company merge with Daimler, followed by Fiat. Now it’s cozying up to PSA Group, leaving many to wonder what purpose Chrysler serves beyond being the corporate namesake.
Officially, the merger isn’t supposed to impact any FCA or PSA brands. But the Chrysler brand isn’t exactly a model of industrial health. Its current lineup consists of four vehicles, one of which (Voyager) is just the lower-trim version of the non-hybrid Pacifica. The minivan sales are enviable, comprising over half of all vehicles sold within the segment for the United States last year — if you incorporate the Dodge Caravan — but Chrysler’s overall trajectory leaves much to be desired.
Here’s how FCA envisioned things — each auto brand would cater to a specific section of the market to provide complete coverage. But market realities put too much pressure on some of them.
Fiat’s penchant for small cars made it a novelty when it landed in the U.S. market, and it garnered some extra attention from those seeking a small car in the wake of the Great Recession. Unfortunately, Americans had already begun shifting toward larger crossover vehicles. The brand’s U.S. deliveries peaked at 46,121 units in 2014. By 2018 Fiat couldn’t even sell 16,000 — despite moving nearly 700,000 vehicles in Europe that same year.
Chrysler’s path, while a little different, is similarly bleak. Immediately before the recession, the brand could reliably sell about 500,000 cars inside the U.S. each year. By 2018, that figure had dwindled to just 165,964 units, mainly the result of minivans falling completely out of fashion.
The Detroit News claims this doesn’t bode well for the brand, regardless of what factory executives say. The FCA-PSA merger will result in an entity with 13 individual brands, which is more than any other global automaker. It’s going to be tough to manage, especially if PSA is interested in shipping French product our way.
Tim Kuniskis, FCA’s head of passenger cars, told the outlet that minivans could be enough. “No one has ever asked if we’re going to stop selling muscle cars,” he said, adding that the United States buys more minivans overall. Yet minivans aren’t typically passion purchases, meaning Chrysler’s current trajectory should still raise an eyebrow or two. In 2019, brand sales fell by 23 percent vs a one percent sales decline for FCA as a whole. Minivans hung in tougher than the 300 sedan, which saw a 37 percent decline against 2018, but Pacifica sales still dropped by 17 percent (the Voyager was new for 2019).
“This is a division that doesn’t seem to represent a vibrant, healthy product line,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Cox Automotive. “It doesn’t seem to have a bright future. I think for most people under the age of 40, they don’t have much awareness or affinity for that brand.”
Considering PSA’s desire to make a move on the North American market, and Chrysler’s presumed anonymity to people under 40, there’s a fair chance that Chrysler will be used for selling Peugeot (and maybe Citroën/DS) vehicles on our side of the ocean.
From The Detroit News:
Last week, PSA said the CEOs for the Citroën and DS brands were moving into new roles to focus on brand positioning, differentiation and cost savings. PSA matches each of its brands with a competitor whose results it aims to beat, [PSA spokesman Bertrand Blaise] said.
“We have Citroën, which is the people-minded brand,” he said. “Peugeot is the high-end mainstream brand. DS Automobiles is a premium brand with a French flair. Opel is the true German brand, and Vauxhall is a brand for the British. We want to maximize our brand positionings within the group portfolio … [PSA CEO Carlos Tavares] always says, ‘Every brand has its own chance.'”
One bright spot for Chrysler is the number of manufacturers who have abandoned the minivan altogether. Most domestic brand snubbed them long ago to prioritize crossover vehicles, leaving a handful of Asian brands and the Pentastar to fight over a fairly small corner of the auto market they don’t really need to share. “From a company standpoint, there are only four players,” Kuniskis explained. “It’s a good place to be … you’re competing on innovation and having the best product in the marketplace.”
In that respect, Pacifica really is a cut above. But there’s nothing to suggest customers will ever come running back into the minivan’s roomy embrace, even if it feels smarter to hedge your bets. Still, Chrysler could be onto something. Asian manufacturers are beginning to corner the small car segment now that U.S. factories have stopped producing them. While that doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference at present, we’re one fuel crisis away from calling them all economic geniuses. If there’s another baby boom, perhaps minivans will once again grow in popularity.
Cox’s Brauer also suggested that the minivan could be the shape of the future. “The best shape for moving people around is a big box,” he said. “It’s not the coolest or sportiest, but it certainly is the most effective. We’re on the cusp of the minivan becoming a far more viable design for human transportation — just not for the personal buyer model.”
Chrysler already supplies Waymo with Pacifica models for its self-driving endeavors, so this isn’t as insane as it sounds. Of course, it also doesn’t help Chrysler in the short term. FCA is cutting a third shift at Windsor Assembly where its minivans are built. It also doesn’t typically set aside the same kind of development cash for the brand that it would for, say, Dodge or Jeep.
Frank Rhodes Jr., great-grandson of Walter P. Chrysler, told The Detroit News he sent a letter to PSA boss Carlos Tavares and French President Emmanuel Macron in November to request their aid in assuring Chrysler’s future as an American automotive brand. PSA stated that Tavares’ office had not received the letter.
“It deserves to survive,” Rhodes said. “Chrysler has done a lot for this country for almost 100 years. It needs to be preserved. It’s heritage, it’s pride, it’s part of Americana. We’re seeing more and more Americana go away. It’s a shame.”
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