Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

LAS VEGAS – Chrysler Group will build the ’09 Dodge Challenger at its plant in Brampton, ON, Canada, Ward’s learns.

Sources confirm long-held speculation that the auto maker’s answer to the highly successful Ford Mustang will be built alongside its platform-mates, the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger fullsize sedans and the Dodge Magnum cross/utility vehicle.

The fate of another potential LX-platform product, a Chrysler Imperial based on a concept car of the same name that debuted last year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, remains unclear.

However, Ward’s is told the project remains on the table as the auto maker renews its product lineup on the heels of a hard-scrabble 2006 that saw its sales decline 7% and market share fall to 13% from 13.6% in 2005.

Dodge retailers here at the 2007 National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention are buzzing about the Challenger.

“We’re getting a lot of calls about it,” says John Greene Jr. of John Greene Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Morganton, NC.

Greene expects the car will have little appeal to traditional import buyers, but “Dodge loyalists” will embrace it readily.

Also competing for this customer will be the Chevrolet Camaro, which General Motors Corp. plans to revive in late-2008.

Bill Abbott, owner of Bill Abbott GM-Chrysler in Monticello, IL, predicts the Challenger will sell above the suggested sticker price at launch.

“That always happens” when cars strike a chord with the public, as Challenger is expected to do, Abbott says.

Building the car at Brampton would be a relief to Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union that represents about 4,200 hourly employees at Brampton Assembly.

Softening Magnum sales, which tumbled 38% last month and 23.6% in 2006, have been linked to extended downtime at the site, Hargrove says, noting the first 10 weeks of this year will see five weeks of shutdown.

“We’re worried about that third shift if they (Chrysler) keep hammering us,” he tells Ward’s in a telephone interview.

A Chrysler spokesman declines comment on the auto maker’s plans for the Challenger.

In an interview last month at the Detroit auto show, Frank Ewasyshyn, executive group vice president-manufacturing, said only that a production site had been chosen. But he did not reveal which site.

The Challenger will continue Dodge’s “car renaissance,” Tom Loveless, director of the brand’s marketing and global communications strategies, says.

Chrysler’s volume brand suffered an 8.6% sales decline last year compared with 2005, when volatile fuel prices curbed truck sales. But Dodge cars sales rose 6.5%, according to Ward’s data.

A key boost came from the debut of the Dodge Caliber, which replaced the Neon as Chrysler’s premier small-car entry.

This year’s launch of the Avenger midsize car is expected to further enhance the brand’s passenger-car profile, while the Challenger – despite its anticipated low, niche-market volumes – represents “street cred” that is part of Dodge’s marketing message.

“We’re capitalizing on this whole kind of movement in society, this whole nostalgic feeling,” Loveless tells Ward’s at a recent Arizona event to introduce the Avenger.

While Challenger resonates automatically with buyers in the 50-55 age range, Loveless is hopeful it will strike a chord with those under 35.

“Challenger, to that buyer, is more vintage than it is nostalgic,” he says.

Chrysler executives are using the NADA event here to further repair the company’s relationship with its dealers, who were undermined last year by the auto maker’s over-aggressive production plan. This contributed to a crippling inventory glut.

“I think there’s been some strain; that’s not a big secret,” Loveless says.

“But I do think we recognize that for us to be successful our dealers need to be successful. Our job is to help facilitate that.”

With the arrival of the Avenger and Challenger, he adds: “We are, from a car lineup, as good as just about anybody.”

emayne@wardsauto.com