Retail Front

Dodge Undergoes Brand ‘Purification’

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The brand moves from overall mainstream to so-called mainstream-performance.

The Dodge brothers were hell-raising bar brawlers who nonetheless had the talent and drive to successfully run the namesake auto company they founded in 1914.

By 1920, Dodge ranked as the second best-selling car in the U.S. But as mere mortals, that was a bad year for the pair. John died in January, Horace in December; both victims of an influenza epidemic.

Eight years later, Chrysler acquired the Dodge Brothers Motor Car Co.

For 100 years, the Dodge brand has had its ups and downs. Some memorable muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s stand out.

So do some mainstream vehicles through the decades, such as four generations of the Coronet car and the ’84 Caravan, the industry’s first minivan. (More on that in a moment.)

In the late 1990s, the venerable nameplate lagged in car sales but delivered a respectable number of Dodge Ram pickups and other truck-based vehicles. The feeling back then was Dodge sucked at selling cars, but did well with trucks.

Then in 2009, Chrysler, fresh out of bankruptcy and once again under new management (Fiat) spun off Ram as its own brand.

The automaker heralded the move in a national ad campaign called “My Name Is Ram.” It sounded like something announced at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It seemed sobering for Dodge.

Dodge dealers also sell Rams, so the spinoff didn’t affect them. But depriving a brand of its bread and butter seemed like Chrysler was putting Dodge on a starvation diet.

Through July, Ram sold nearly a quarter of a million trucks that Dodge would have been posting on its board. Dodge sales through July were 350,042 units, down 2.9%.

The portfolio trimming continues.

This model year is the last for the Dodge Avenger sedan. The automaker is replacing it with the ’15 Chrysler 200, leaving yet another gap in the Dodge lineup.

The Caravan minivan is scheduled to end production in mid-2016, the same year as the Chrysler Town and Country minivan redo. So Dodge loses its one-time wonder, too.  

People began wondering if Dodge’s days are numbered. But the newly named Fiat Chrysler Automobiles says it is recasting Dodge into something special.

The new role of the centenarian is to serve as the “mainstream performance brand.” SRT (Street and Racing Technology), which was a separate Chrysler entity, now joins Dodge.

“SRT will be positioned as the ultimate performance halo of the Dodge brand,” the company says, while referring to the “purification” of Dodge.

So Dodge now offers the Viper, a super-sports car that had been stripped of the Dodge name for a while (sound familiar?).  As powerful as the Viper is (640 hp), its sales are weak: just 591 deliveries last year. That’s about three times less than the automaker was hoping for after resurrecting the car in 2012. It had been discontinued during the dark days of 2010.

Then there’s the Charger, a beefy 4-door performer. Enthusiasts like it. So do some cops. It’s used as a police car in some places. A friend who’s a former cop and now advises police and fire departments on vehicle-fleet procurements, tells me some police chiefs complain about officers hot-rodding around in Chargers, driving up department fuel costs. And they needn't worry about getting cited for speeding.

At a media extravaganza last month, Dodge highlighted its Challenger lineup, ranging from the base model (pretty hot all by itself) to the Challenger SRT models (hot, hot, hot) to the Challenger SRT Hellcat (call the fire department). It can crank up to 707 hp, making it the most potent muscle car on the market.

Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis says the expanding number of muscle cars in his stable come with backseats and ample trunks.

“Forty brands and 290 cars are on the market,” he says. “There are so many choices. It’s the perfect time to give people practicality, yet also offer something that’s not going to get lost in a mall parking lot.”

A Hellcat with a “Redline Tri-Coat Pearl” or “Jazz Blue Pearl” paint job stands out anywhere.       

Kuniskis declines to speculate on how many Hellcats Dodge might sell. “I don’t know, because we’ve never built anything like this,” he says. Still, he notes, when Dodge unveiled the Hellcat, “all hell broke loose.”

Dodge is generating excitement these days. But ultimately, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is in the business to sell vehicles, not thrill crowds of non-buying muscle-car fans.

So we’ll see how it goes as Dodge moves from overall mainstream to so-called mainstream performance, which sounds like a nice way to say niche brand.

If the Dodge brothers were around, they’d likely toast the newly distilled brand bearing their name. Well, they’d raise a glass to just about anything. But that’s beside the point.   

         

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