More stories related to Geneva Motor ShowGENEVA – Chrysler Group uses the auto show here to launch the Dodge brand in Europe with the unveiling of the Caliber concept vehicle.

While the Viper already is on sale in Europe, the true launch for Dodge begins in 2006 with the Caliber, a production-ready concept for world markets. (See related story: Dodge Reveals Entry-Level Car Concept)

The 5-door hatchback slots into the C segment, replacing the Neon. It is expected to go on sale as an ’06 model, with few styling changes from the concept.

The Caliber, to be assembled in Belvidere, IL, will go on sale in the U.S. first, with introduction in Europe to follow shortly thereafter, says Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler chairman and CEO.

While officials are unwilling to give sales estimates for the Caliber, Eric Ridenour, executive vice president-product development, predicts demand will be significantly higher than for the outgoing Neon.

The jaunty Caliber (the name will stay or go, depending on public reaction) has “lots of excitement to go after the youth market,” Zetsche says.

He is convinced it has the key attributes to compete in Europe, and the muscular Dodge styling is “icing on the cake.”

The car maker now has a sufficient product base to launch the Dodge brand in Europe, Zetsche says.

Dodge Caliber

The next vehicle expected to join the European lineup is the Dodge Nitro, a concept based on the Jeep Liberty that was unveiled last month in Chicago. (See related story: Public Will Help Determine Dodge Nitro Fate)

Rounding out the Dodge choices for Europe likely will be a future D segment, midsize model, perhaps a cross/utility vehicle from a stretched version of the architecture that yields the Caliber.

Excluding the Viper, all vehicles for Europe will have diesel engines available.

Dodge is the car maker’s best-selling brand in North America, Zetsche says, accounting for more than half of Chrysler Group’s U.S. light-vehicle sales. In Europe, Dodge will allow the auto maker to enter lower-priced segments, he says.

The reaction so far in Europe to the Caliber and the Dodge brand in general is positive, says Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler Group vice president-global sales and marketing.

The auto maker announced in 2004 it would roll out the Dodge brand in Europe in 2006, giving itself two years to make sure Europeans recognize and understand the brand before launch. Now at the halfway point, Eberhardt thinks the strategy is working.

He says the Caliber will compete in the heart of the compact car market. Dodge will be selling attitude and a low price – 5%-15% less than key competitors.

And the platform is expected to yield many body-style variants beyond the 5-door Caliber, Ridenour says. A second version, possibly the CUV, will be unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show this fall.

From 2003 to 2007, Chrysler Group will more than double the number of vehicles it offers internationally, Zetsche says. In Europe, market share is projected to grow from 0.7% today to 1.4% during this period.

Meanwhile, production of the 300C has begun in Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik AG & Co. KG’s Graz, Austria, plant, Zetsche says.

And Ridenour confirms shipment of the high-performance 300C SRT-8 – including the one he ordered for himself – is under way.

apriddle@primediabusiness.com