State of FCA: Dodge Challenger Hits its Stride, Fiat a Work in Progress07/09/2019
FCA’s future has had an air of uncertainty about it as executives past and present have pursued mergers with other automakers. The company’s latest thwarted effort was with Renault, and although those talks fell apart, they might not be dead yet.
And whereas the future of the Chrysler portion of FCA could be in doubt, the automaker continues to operate as if it’s business as usual. Before his death, former CEO Sergio Marchionne finalized a five-year business and product plan that plotted a future for all eight brands, but in that plan four brands were elevated to yeoman’s service while the other four were relegated to regional, almost niche status. Jeep, Ram, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati are supposed to do the heavy lifting. Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, and SRT are the more boutique brands.
And their biggest champion, Tim Kuniskis, is back in charge of the lower-tier passenger car brands. Kuniskis is the one who injected his passion for these cars into the brands, especially Dodge, before he was moved to other responsibilities. But with the retirement of Steve Beahm, CEO Mike Manley has put Kuniskis back into the role where he feels most comfortable.
Kuniskis was only a few days back on the old beat when MotorTrend spent some time with him to get a better assessment of the vehicles and brands he oversees, which include Dodge, Chrysler, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and SRT.
For starters, Kuniskis notes this is not small potatoes: A quarter of the total product investment for the five-year plan goes to these brands.
Here is a snapshot of the passenger brands and plans:
Dodge is aware that it’s a brand with only 3 percent market share, so it plays directly to its performance-oriented base. “Love it or hate it, it has an identity that separates it from the pack,” Kuniskis said.
In an age when car nameplates are going extinct at an alarming pace, Dodge has become a master at adding muscle car variants, scat packs, and widebodies, and he’s made Hellcat a household name. The Challenger has added the Demon, Redeye, and 1320, to name a few. Turning attention to the Charger, it gets an SRT Hellcat Widebody this fall.
“When we did the Demon, I honest to God thought that was the muscle car mic drop,” Kuniskis said. But he was wrong. “As soon as we did it, we were like, ‘What else you got?'”
It’s working. The last decade has seen a 60 percent increase in Challenger and Charger sales, and the Challenger had its best sales in 2018. And although these cars ride on an old platform, there are no plans to give them new bones or to discontinue them as long as there’s demand and they meet all regulations.
With the Challenger turning 50 years old this year, we’re expecting to see anniversary editions. And no, the Demon is not coming back, Kuniskis said. Nor will there be a Charger Demon.
The Durango fits the brand as a performance SUV, but it’s in a competitive segment that has exploded with new three-row SUV entries.
Kuniskis admitted the smaller Journey is an outlier, but being in a hot SUV segment, it does well. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it’s perfectly aligned with the direction that the brand’s headed,” he said, “but it’s a great-looking car in a great segment that sells extremely well, so I see no problem with Journey.” It will also fill a bit of a gap when Chrysler eventually stops making the aging Grand Caravan minivan, he said.
The namesake Chrysler brand is the family-friendly people-mover brand. It has become a one-trick pony: minivans, a segment that has seen sales fall 20 percent. But within that smaller pool, FCA commands about half the segment; Honda and Toyota are the only other main players. The Pacifica, offered as a conventional minivan as well as a plug-in hybrid, has seen sales decline to the point where the Windsor Assembly Plant will drop down to two shifts in October.
To bolster sales, FCA is repackaging and bringing back the Voyager name for the more affordable trim levels, making Pacifica the more premium minivan. The Voyager will come in L and LX trims and add an LXi for fleet sales. The Voyager was intended to replace the Grand Caravan, but that won’t happen yet. The Grand Caravan will remain in production as long as there is demand and capacity in Windsor. There’s no end date in sight right now, Kuniskis said. Minivan customers will soon have a broad choice: Grand Caravan, Voyage, and Pacifica including the plug-in hybrid.
Chrysler could add an all-wheel-drive version of the minivan, and adding that capability would dovetail well with long-delayed plans to add a Chrysler crossover. Kuniskis had no comment on those future plans.
Chrysler will still offer the 300 full-size sedan for the 2020 model year, but the car’s longevity is far from assured.
Fiat is still a work in progress. When FCA brought the cute Italian brand to the U.S. in 2011, there was a quick rise to 35,000 sales with a target of 50,000 annual sales in the NAFTA region with the introduction of more models. But sales have leveled off in the 30,000 range, and FCA has given dealers permission to sell Fiats in the same showroom as other brands, recognizing the volume isn’t high enough to demand standalone dealerships.
Alfa is supposed to be one of the big-boy brands and is Kuniskis’ only global responsibility. U.S. sales were less than 24,000 last year and will be flat again this year, he forecasts. There are only 158 outlets, all in metro markets, and half the online searches for an Alfa come from outside a 50-mile radius of a dealership. “There are no plans to open more, but it hinders us,” Kuniskis said. The Tonale compact crossover concept at the 2019 Geneva auto show was well received, looks production ready, and would be a welcome addition to the lineup. Kuniskis would not discuss the feasibility study to get it into production.
SRT remains a standalone brand. It has become synonymous with Dodge, but it in fact is a separate performance brand; there’s also a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT and the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk with the Hellcat 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 engine. And the Ram Rebel TRX with the 707-hp Hellcat V-8 has been caught testing.
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