The Chrysler Airflow concept that debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month could be one of the most important vehicles in the long, storied — often troubled — history of the Detroit brand.
At one point, Chrysler was one of the best-known marques in America, with as many as a dozen different nameplates to choose from. Today, there are just two, the Pacifica minivan and the nearly forgotten 300 sedan. While it’s not yet clear if a version of the Airflow will make it into production, Chrysler brand boss Chris Feuell is clear that the concept is a critical step forward and, if it generates a positive response, could provide the foundation for a wave of new products. Starting in 2025, Chrysler is scheduled to introduce its first battery-electric vehicle and, by 2028, Feuell announced at CES, the brand will go 100% BEV.
Feuell is an automotive veteran, with time spent early on at Ford before shifting the supplier world. She signed on in September 2021 with Stellantis — the carmaker formed last year through the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and France’s Group PSA — as Chrysler brand CEO. Feuell took a break in a hectic schedule to talk to TheDetroitBureau.com about her plans to bring the marque back to life — and whether the Airflow concept will land a place in the line-up.
TheDetroitBureau.com: Congratulations on taking the helm at Chrysler but it reminds me of the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for.” I’m old enough to remember when this was a very popular brand. Today, you have to be aware of the challenges it’s facing.
Chris Feuell: Well, sure. At its peak, the Chrysler brand had about 12 nameplates and we now have two. Over time, it’s been clear the brand has not been invested in. But, I will say there are a lot of Chrysler enthusiasts still in the market today. They remember the legacy products we had. But the future of Chrysler is definitely going in a different direction, one that is fully electrified by 2028. And we’re focused on integrating technologies and features that not only improve the driving experience, but also improve the passenger mobility experience by helping them to bring their personal digital life into the vehicle.
TDB: In a presentation at CES, CEO Carlos Tavares estimated Stellantis will deliver 20 billion euros (about $22 billion) by 2030 from software and subscription services. Can you talk about how that will play out for the Chrysler brand?
Feuell: I’ll use the Airflow as the example. It integrates key Stellantis technologies, starting with the Stellantis Brain. It incorporates AI and is the electrical and software architecture that really defines the user experience within the vehicle. Then there’s the Smart Cockpit, and if you look at Airflow’s interior you’ll see these beautiful, seamless screens for the driver, passenger and rear seats. We want to create a connected hub, with each seating area set up so occupants can personalize their experience, whether using navigation, gaming or streaming entertainment or the personal voice assistant.
TDB: During a CES presentation, Sony said it wants to get into the car business and it clearly also would put its emphasis on in-car technology. How would Chrysler differentiate itself?
Feuell: I think what would differentiate us from a technology provider is that we deliver the entire vehicle experience through the Chrysler brand. It’s the hardware and software together that provides the seamless ownership cycle. And, with over-the-air updates, we’ll make it possible to have feature and technology upgrades on demand, and not having to wait for a new vehicle to launch.
Rediscovering the brand
TDB: No matter what the technology, a large percentage of people still fall in love with a car because of its design, both inside and out. With that in mind, what will it take to make people love Chrysler products again?
Feuell: Obviously, launching cutting edge and contemporary designs like you see in the Airflow is the first step. (Global design chief) Ralph Gilles and his team have done a tremendous job, and not just with the exterior. I think that is something that has differentiated Chrysler for some time. We have always been very highly rated for the quality and the premium feel of our interiors. We have to continue that as a differentiator going forward.
TDB: You pointed out how few products you now have. How many do you need? The reality is you need a level of coverage. You can’t just have the odd car unless you’re a niche manufacturer at a high price point.
Feuell: I can’t give you specifics around the number of new products we have planned. I can tell you we have the (Stellantis) leadership team’s commitment to invest in the Chrysler brand. We are completely rethinking the portfolio strategy. I don’t intend to walk away from our core segments, including the 300. But, if I reflect on Chrysler’s heritage for breakthrough innovation, I want to introduce new products (offering) a redefinition of what consumers are thinking, redefining the minivan, for example, not just coming out with a refresh of the existing Pacifica.
Airflow part of the electric future?
TDB: So, is the Airflow going to be a production vehicle? And, if so, will it still seem fresh since you say your first all-electric model won’t arrive until the 2025 model year?
Feull: The Airflow reflects the journey the Chrysler brand is on to transform itself. The design theme will be updated slightly for the new products that are coming in 2025 and beyond. You will see a lot of the same design themes and cues in our future products and, certainly, the integration of the advanced Stellantis software and technology platforms.
TDB: Will you keep the Chrysler Airflow name?
Feuell: It’s on the list for consideration, along with others.
TDB: You’ve committed to go 100% electric. Will there be enough of a market to sustain a brand like Chrysler? Certainly, Tesla has shown there’s a market there.
Feuell: Absolutely. And I think we’re hitting the sweet spot on timing of launching these vehicles across our portfolio. And we’ve done market research and, while consumers are very impressed with Tesla, they’re looking for an alternative, so there’s definitely a market … and we’re excited about the prospects of Chrysler going all electric.
There are a barriers to (consumers) considering battery-electric technology. So, our intention is overcome those objections. The Airflow has a 400-mile range. We’re investing in 800-volt technology, and a charging network strategy and fast-charging capabilities.
TDB: And pricing? Chrysler once was a luxury brand.
Feuell: Our price point will be in the sweet spot of the mainstream market. We’re not looking to compete with the luxury players.
TDB: What buyers are going after? I’ve heard talk you’re targeting millennials, especially women.
Feuell: Well, we’re going after a millennial demographic, individuals who are technology savvy and have sustainability as a high priority. We have a lot of these kinds of buyers purchasing our Pacifica today (which is the only minivan offered with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain option). They tend to skew more female.
TDB: While EV sales were up sharply last year, there’s still a lot of confusion in the market and it seems it’s all about word-of-mouth to convince people. Do you agree that this is what it will take, not the advertising?
Feuell: I think you’ve raised an important point. The product only gets you so far. The other important aspect is the customer experience. And we are working to transform the end-to-end process, the purchase process, the onboarding process, because all of this new technology can be very confusing for some people to use. We want to make people are making the most of their (new) vehicles.