It’s been a cold, cruel winter for the auto industry, even makers like General Motors and Toyota struggling to maintain momentum in the marketplace. Chrysler has been one of the few automakers to remain in the black so far – but while demand has been strong for models like the Ram 1500 pickup and Jeep Cherokee, sales have been sliding like a muscle car on ice when it comes to some of the Detroit firm’s smallest passenger cars.
Demand for the once-promising Dodge Dart, in particular, has been weak enough to force a temporary shutdown of Chrysler’s Illinois assembly plant.
The downturn is all the more striking when one considers that sales of utility vehicles and light-duty trucks have helped lift the Chrysler Group to year-over-year sales increases for 47 consecutive months — one of the longest streaks in the car business — even as rivals such as General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai lost ground.
But it’s a very different story when it comes to Chrysler’s smaller models. Sales of the Fiat 500 dropped 19% during February and are off by 11% so far this month, according to preliminary figures from various industry tracking firms.
One of the biggest disappointments comes from the Dodge Dart, the compact model launched two years ago to much fanfare. Sales dropped 37% in February and are down by 33% so far this month, which prompted Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to shut down the Dart assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois for one week earlier this month to reduce inventories piling up on dealer lots.
Part of the softness of in sales of the smaller vehicles is due to the weather — competing small cars, such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, also saw sales soften last month as winter weather laid siege to much of the country.
(Winter puts the Big Chill on February car sales. Click Here for more.)
Fuel prices, which haven’t experienced the sort of spike seen during last winter, also seem to be encouraging potential buyers to shift to larger, more powerful products.
Chrysler has been struggling to rebuild momentum for the Dart and 500. But CEO Sergio Marchionne last week stressed that the company won’t flood the market with the huge price cuts and incentives that were commonplace prior to the recent economic downturn – something he described as “undisciplined and erratic pricing” that could quickly lead to an industry-wide price war.
Instead, speaking at a news conference during the Geneva Motor Show, Marchionne appeared willing to accept softer sales, lower market share and the need to cut production if the demand isn’t there.
(Small is big as Jeep unveils new Renegade model at Geneva Motor Show. Click Here to check it out.)
But Chrysler does have other options. Among other things, it is hoping to counter the drop in sales of small cars by offering new versions of existing models, such as the Fiat 500.
The tactic has worked with other Chrysler products, notably the Chrysler 300, which has been promoted with several limited-edition packages over the last couple of years, including a special Motown edition and a special package for winter driving.
A new 1957 Edition of the Fiat 500 commemorates the roots of the microcar with unique details and colors. The limited, 1957-edition was inspired by the 1957 Fiat “Nuova” Cinquecento and features 16-inch retro wheels, a wide chromed lip, body-color accent and large center cap with historic “FIAT” emblem. It also features a sport-tuned suspension and, all-season performance tires for a more modern touch.
(Demand soars for new Ram 1500 Diesel. Click Here for the latest.)
Separately, Chrysler announced it was launching an investigation of the larger Fiat 500L models equipped with dual dry clutch automatic transmissions. The cars will not shift readily out of park, according to consumer complaints. Chrysler Group said it was unaware of any injuries or accidents related to the problem but noted the investigation discovered the function of one microcontroller component may be compromised by certain temperature extremes.
Approximately 18,100 owners in the U.S. and 1,400 in Canada – will be contacted and advised when to schedule service, which will require an update in software. An estimated 200 vehicles may require shift-module replacement to ensure hardware-software compatibility.
(Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.)
Tags: Fiat 500, Sergio Marchionne, auto news, auto sales, car news, car sales, chrysler news, chrysler sales, dodge dart, dodge dart sales, dodge news, february car sales, fiat 500 sales, fiat news, joe szczesny, thedetroitbureau