There was a time when the Chrysler brand targeted the pinnacle of the automotive market, taking aim at the same luxury buyers as rivals Cadillac and Lincoln. These days, the closest it can come is loading up its Pacifica minivan with high-line touches like cross-stitched leather and dubbing it the Pinnacle edition.
Once boasting a broad array of products, the Chrysler brand is today a shadow of its former self, with just the Pacifica and Voyager minivans – the last originally sold as a Plymouth model – and the 300 sedan. With sales of minivans relatively flat, and demand for the big four-door fading fast, along with the rest of the sedan market, observers have begun asking questions about Chrysler’s long-term viability.
And that becomes an even more pressing concern as parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles moves closer to its official merger with France’s PSA. Together, the two companies will have close to a dozen different brands to deal with, a number that may simply be too many to cope with, according to some analysts. Ironically, the two that seem to many to be the most vulnerable are the eponymous Fiat and Chrysler.
“We’re a house of brands … each with its own identity. They don’t have to be everything to everybody,” said Tim Kuniskis, the FCA executive who, among his many duties at the Italian-American automaker, oversees the Chrysler brand.
Founded by Walter P. Chrysler in 1925, the Chrysler brand, like the company sharing its name, has gone through plenty of changes during the last 95 years.
In its heyday, it served as the up-market marque for the Chrysler Corp., an aspirational goal for those buying lower-tiered Plymouth and Dodge models. But a long-running slide down-market was cemented into place when the carmaker emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 and merged with Fiat.
Under new CEO Sergio Marchionne, the Chrysler brand’s role seemed permanently shifted from luxury to mainstream, noted IHS Markit Analyst Stephanie Brinley. More significantly, FCA plans called for it to get far less product than in the past. In recent years, the only all-new offering was the Chrysler 200 sedan – and despite a major makeover, it was pulled from production in 2017, the victim of fast-falling sedan sales.
FCA has offered a few hints suggesting it may have more product in mind for the Chrysler brand. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it showed off a concept
dubbed the Airflow – picking up on a legendary name from its golden days. The automaker has been coy about saying whether the CES show car – which looks something like a cross between a minivan and SUV – will wind up in production.
“I would never say never to new product for us,” Kuniskis told TheDetroitBureau.com during an interview following the launch of the Pacifica Pinnacle at this week’s Chicago Auto Show. “But the minivan does extremely well for us,” he continued, noting that the current strategy is to focus marketing on the Pacifica nameplate, rather than the Chrysler brand.
That can work, agreed analyst Brinley, but only to a point. Brands still carry strong messages about everything from their status in the automotive hierarchy to the quality and reliability of their individual products. And that’s a gap for Chrysler models as the brand becomes increasingly invisible in the market.
“They need more product,” said Brinley, adding that, with so little to offer now, “The question is what happens after FCA and PSA merge.”
It is quite possible, according to Brinley and other industry watchers, that the as yet-unnamed new company will launch a strategy that maintains all of its existing brands – a list that includes U.S. marques Dodge, Chrysler, Ram and Italian Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Maserati, as well as PSA’s Peugeot, Citroen and DS and the Opel and Vauxhall brands the French company acquired from General Motors a few years ago.
That will mean a lot of brand mouths to feed, however. And one of the challenges will be not only to give each of them new products but also to retain distinct identities from a design, feature and marketing standpoint. Only a handful of carmakers have been able to make that work. Volkswagen currently has a dozen marques, from base Seat and midrange VW up to exclusive Porsche, Lamborghini and Bentley, among others.
General Motors struggled for years with complaints about “badge-engineered,” look-alike models. It ultimately wound up closing Saturn, Saab, Pontiac and Hummer as it emerged from bankruptcy, later selling off Opel and Vauxhall.
Pressed on whether the Chrysler brand can survive without new product, especially after the upcoming merger, Kuniskis declined to comment. But FCA insiders have suggested that will be one of the key questions that must be dealt with as the new company falls into place.
While minivan sales are solid enough that the Pacifica all but certainly will continue to be part of the line-up, it just might have to find a new home if a combined FCA-PSA consolidates its range of brands and decides Chrysler is a mouth it no longer wants to feed.