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US invasion plan Mk II

Just 12 months ago, the only All-American cars on sale in the UK were Jeep and Chrysler.

For more than 10 years, they had the UK market to themselves. But this year the list has expanded with the return of the ultimate Stars ’n Stripes nameplates, Cadillac and Chevrolet.

Now Dodge, part of the DaimlerChrysler stable that owns Jeep and Chrysler, is outlining its own plans to launch in the UK and Europe with the reveal of two concepts, the Caliber hatchback and Nitro 4x4, as a taste of what’s to come.

But what are Dodge’s chances of success in the over-supplied European market? And how will this very American brand fare in the cut-throat Euro market?

Depending on your view, Dodge’s Euro-plan is either over-optimistic or not sufficiently ambitious. In fact there are many industry experts who believe the launch of Dodge in Europe is fundamentally flawed.

Most outspoken of the experts contacted by AM is consultant John Wormald, a partner with Auto-polis. “I have a lot of reservations about US cars and their quality,” he says. “The launch of Dodge in Europe is desperation. This is marginal volume and the best that can be said is that with the weak dollar, they should be cheap.”

To which Chrysler Group’s global executive vice-president of sales and marketing Joe Eberhardt replies: “This is a well judged plan – not too ambitious, and we think we will make it.”

The foundation stone is the strategic goal of parent DaimlerChrysler to double European sales in five years to 200,00 units, the equivalent of 1.4% of the EU market and still small in comparison with established players.

Dodge is expected to deliver around 70,000 of those sales, while Chrysler and Jeep sales rise from today’s 100,000 to about 130,000 thanks to additional models.

Sources suggest the UK’s contribution will be 10,000 units, less than today’s ChryslerJeep figure of 16,000, and about 0.5% of the UK market.

For ChryslerJeep’s 90-strong UK dealer network, that sounds a tasty business prospect. Each will be offered a franchise that could bring in an extra 110 new-car sales a year, and for limited investment.

According to Thomas Hausch, Chrysler’s executive director of international sales and marketing, the investment will be: “In the order of tens of thousands of Euros or pounds – so not too much.” Most dealers are crunching the numbers right now, and AM’s research reveals that the response looks enthusiastic at the moment, with a few reservations.

The expansion will put pressure on smaller dealers who may need to search out larger premises. In the first phase, each dealer will have to allocate one showroom spot to Dodge. For a small three- to four-car showroom ChryslerJeep dealer, that could be a big ask.

But these sales targets bring with them constraints, because the numbers are small and DC can’t afford to develop unique, Euro-friendly models. So it will import US-models, modified for European tastes. “We will intelligently adapt our US-focused cars for European requirements in terms of engine, transmission and equipment,” says Eberhardt.

But another critic of Dodge’s plan is consultant Jay Nagley of Spyder Automotive: “I’m not convinced at all. Chrysler has been trying to break into the European market for 10 years. And doesn’t DC have enough brands in Europe already, if you include Mercedes and Smart?”

One of Nagley’s points is that previous attempts to sell US-designs in Europe have all failed — GM’s Sintra MPV and Monterey 4x4, Ford’s Probe and Cougar coupes and Explorer 4x4. “If Dodge succeeds, it will be a world first,” he says.

Dodge will pin its hopes initially on a new C-segment car, closely based on the Caliber concept. It will rely on aggressive styling and the bold hallmark Dodge ‘crosshair’ grille to make an impact. At least Dodge has time to warm up the buying public to the new brand name.

The Caliber doesn’t go on sale until mid-2006, giving the company 18 months to build-up brand awareness and the dealer network in which to sell it.

OVER MATTER FORM MAIN STORY

With a platform co-developed with the next-generation Mitsubishi Lancer and featuring a diesel engine, it promises Euro-friendly technology and state-of-the art four-cylinder petrol engines from DCX’s world engine program, co-developed with Mitsubishi and Hyundai in 1.8, 2.0 and 2.4-litre capacities.

But it’s an argument that has yet to win over Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School: “The cars are essentially designed for the US market and that will limit their appeal.

In the EU they’ll have to compete with established competitors like Renault, PSA and Ford and they’re all better at it. And do they have the dealer network to support this launch?

“But I think the plan makes more sense if they will be badged as Chryslers.”

Nieuwenhuis’s last point identifies the most perplexing element of the Dodge launch — that the Caliber and forthcoming D-segment saloon would be better-off fitted into the gaping holes in Chrysler’s eccentric EU range of niche MPVs, sportscar and novelty models.

It’s a criticism that Joe Eberhardt has heard before and has a well-rehearsed answer (see Q&A) : “We’ve created individual brand identities for Chrysler and Dodge and don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by re-badging Dodges as Chryslers.”

That’s a veiled reference to the Dodge Neon, which was rebadged as a Chrysler for Europe and sold poorly.

Eberhardt believes the three model ranges of Jeep, Chrysler and Dodge will evolve and eventually compliment each other: “Fast forward five years and we will have a complete product portfolio for Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge. Each will have very different priorities and focuses. And we think the product will be successful and different enough.”

A program of events, including a focus on heritage, possibly at one of the Goodwood motorsport weekends, is being planned.

Perhaps the last word ought to go to Nigel Griffiths, senior analyst at Global Insight: “We’ve been here before and seen it before with various past attempts to launch American nameplates in Europe. Do we need another nameplate and more models and products? The industry is already awash with them.”

Q&A

Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler sales VP

Q: Why launch Dodge and not fill in the gaps of the Chrysler range?

A: Chrysler is moving up-market and Dodge is a sporty brand. We can’t just rebadge the Dodges as Chryslers for Europe.

Q: Who will buy the cars?

A: People who want to be associated with the most-American brand we have.

Q: Will multi-brands confuse buyers?

A: Having an established dealer network makes the plan effective. Launching an all-new network would have been impossible.



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