AUBURN HILLS, MI – A primary goal of Chrysler’s product-improvement campaign is to win hearts and minds, says Doug Betts, senior vice president-quality.

“I want a million-man army out there saying, ‘Buy Chrysler!’” he says.

And there is one basic rule of engagement: Satisfy the customer.

While the auto maker stepped on a landmine with J.D. Power and Associates’ 2012 Vehicle Dependability Study, the marketplace is sending signals that suggest victory is on the horizon.

Betts says Chrysler’s warranty claim-rate spiked lower in 2011, when it was juggling 16 product launches, than in 2008 when the auto maker introduced just three vehicles – the redesigned Ram pickup and the all-new Journey cross/utility vehicle and Challenger muscle coupe from Dodge.

“The best would be no spike at all,” he tells WardsAuto in an exclusive interview. “I’ve worked at several companies. I’ve never seen that happen.”

Betts is mum on precise numbers but reminds that Chrysler’s 2011 recall count was low.

The auto maker had just eight campaigns last year, compared with GM’s industry-worst 21, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. data. Of the Big Six U.S.-market auto makers, only Nissan, with seven, had fewer recall campaigns than Chrysler.

Factor in a pair of recent Polk Automotive awards for consumer loyalty – one for the Jeep brand and another for the Chrysler Town & Country minivan – and the auto maker appears ready to carry the day.

But Chrysler took a direct hit last week when J.D. Power released its 2012 VDS results, a real-world performance evaluation of the U.S. market’s ’09 lineup over three years.

Of the 32 brands studied, the bottom four ratings belonged to – in descending order – Ram, Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler. And of the 36 models singled out as top performers in their respective segments, not one is from Chrysler.

Ironically, this poor performance reflects progress. Chrysler’s ratings were 10% higher than its ’08 models earned in last year’s VDS. However, the industry average improved 13%.

“These results are based on cars sold three years ago,” Betts says in a statement. “Since that time, we have made significant changes to our product lineup and everything else about our company’s structure and the way it develops cars.”

Against this backdrop, information gathered by Chrysler and by third-party market-watchers suggest the auto maker’s ’11 and ’12 models are “starting to build our army of advocates,” Betts says.

Chrysler surveys its customers three times: two days after purchase, again after 90 days and finally after three years.

“We basically ask people, ‘Would you recommend us to your friends and family members?’” Betts says. “Instead of asking 150 questions, we get right to the point.”

The results are encouraging. “We’ve got a good trend,” he says. “Some of our newest vehicles show that the willingness to be an advocate is really growing and is even passing some leading competitors.”

Citing proprietary concerns, Betts again declines to discuss specifics. But there are other indicators that Chrysler vehicles are, at least, capturing the attention of consumers.

Dennis Bulgarelli, director-automotive of Internet shopping tracker Compete, points to Chrysler’s share of market interest and says the auto maker “made great strides in 2011.”

Each month last year an average of 3.6% of all in-market shoppers were focused on Chrysler-brand vehicles, Compete says. That’s a gain of 0.7 percentage points over 2010.

Dodge and Jeep saw upticks of 0.1 and 0.2, respectively, to 8.0% and 4.0%.

Betts and his fellow executives have linked growing outside interest with an internal awakening at Chrysler. The auto maker’s 2009 brush with death inspired a powerful sense of purpose while also infusing the company with renewed discipline, courtesy of alliance-partner Fiat.

Among its myriad contributions, the Italy-based auto maker is helping Chrysler address a key area of customer concern – fit and finish – by encouraging a proliferation of in-plant metrology centers.

“A metrology center is a place where you can do all of the measuring and research in order to understand how to control the body and the interior, basically the fitting of the car,” he says.

Chrysler plants in Toluca, Mexico; Brampton, ON, Canada; and Detroit each have one. More will be added as new products are launched.

“Belvidere’s going to get one,” Betts says of the Illinois plant that will be home to the all-new ’13 Dodge Dart C-car.

Metrology centers are commonplace in Fiat’s assembly network. “It’s something that we were a million miles away, at Chrysler, from ever thinking about doing,” he says, adding forethought now is top of mind.

“We’re spending a lot time working on the system that loads the lessons from the past, so that when you’re developing new vehicles, you’re checking the things that have historically been problems.”

Further upstream in the process, engineers are making greater use of digital tools to ensure plastics have rich-looking grains and finishes.

“We don’t want (consumers) to look at the car and say, ‘That doesn’t look like a nice car,’” Betts says. “That’s perceived quality. It’s just that gut feeling you have. You look at a car and say, ‘You know, I could see myself in this.’”

Similar tools are used to troubleshoot assembly problems before they stall production, or worse, spread customer dissatisfaction.

“You can set yourself up with challenges to execution that can’t be met,” Betts warns. So Chrysler performs meticulous assembly simulations to make sure parts “come together on a reliable, day-to-day basis in the factory.”

This approach has contributed to Chrysler’s adoption of one-piece instrument panels, a design strategy pioneered on the ’11 Journey – one of the auto maker’s most significant re-launches last year.

The instrument panel on the ’13 Dart, arguably Chrysler’s most important product introduction of 2012, will benefit from one-piece construction, Betts says.

However, new products are not monopolizing attention, evidenced by the expansion of Chrysler’s partnership with Roush.

The auto maker contracted Roush to perform rigorous real-world testing on last year’s newly launched vehicles. But after observing some warranty spikes involving carryover models, Betts says the Chrysler considered whether it could further leverage the Roush program to benefit the entire product lineup.

“The answer was yes,” he says. Now, every month, the auto maker pulls from its assembly lines five units of each model it produces and sends them to Roush.

Speed is further testament to the new aggressiveness inspired by the Fiat regime. Having identified loose floor mats as a major impediment to customer satisfaction, Chrysler quickly is adopting a 2-pin anchor system, Betts says, adding the pennies-per-unit expenditure once would have been pondered at length with little hope of approval.

“Put two holes in the mats, two pins in the floor and it’s a done deal,” he says. “Things like that we know are going to make (Chrysler’s scores) better.”
The auto maker will not have to wait long before its next report card. Next week, Consumer Reports releases its “top picks” for 2012.

In the marketplace, the magazine’s influence ranks second only to word-of-mouth, Betts says. But fundamental product quality matters more in the battle for hearts and minds.

“At the end of day, all you really care about as a car company is advocacy and loyalty because you want to sell cars,” he adds. “You want those people you got to stay loyal and tell everybody else, ‘You ought be like me and buy this car.’”

emayne@wardsauto.com