Chrysler Group LLC confirms it will rename the Chrysler Sebring midsize car for model-year ’11, while tipping its hand on the future of other key products.

The announcement ends months of speculation about the influence of Fiat Automobiles SpA, which assumed management control of the auto maker after it emerged from bankruptcy last year.

As senior Chrysler executives meet today in Florida with more than 1,600 dealers, the auto maker says the Sebring nameplate will be replaced by “200.” The announcement follows weeks of intense, high-level discussions within the company.

Also unveiled today is the Chrysler Town & Country minivan. It will feature the auto maker’s all-new Pentastar V-6 engine, which also will be available in the 200.

More noticeably, the ’11 T&C marks the official debut of a new Chrysler badge. It was first shown last year, in stylized form, when the auto maker laid out its long-term business plan.

The trademark wings of the previous badge remain, but the iconic gold emblem in the center is replaced by a blue bar.

“What will make (the brand) unique is that it will give people beautiful shapes, which would otherwise be out of reach,” Olivier Francois, Chrysler brand president and CEO says in a statement. “It will always deliver a bit more than the customer expects.”

Expectations are critical, says Joe Lescota, chairman of the automotive marketing department at Northwood University in Midland, MI.

“From a consumer perspective, (the new badge) is not what I’m used to seeing,” Lescota tells Wards’s. “As a consumer, what I do like is stability.”

Such change would have a better chance of succeeding if Chrysler were operating “from a position of strength,” he says.

“You’re looking at a market that’s very nervous,” Lescota adds, suggesting no amount of new product can overcome the malaise that accompanies a weak economy.

While the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate through August is tracking ahead of like-2009 –11.27 million to 10.44 million, according to Ward’s data – the market’s upward trend shows evidence of flattening, compared with its first-half performance.

Sales in June, July and August lagged like-2009 by 2.9%, according to Ward’s.

Dealers can rightfully enthuse about today’s product announcements, but they are “still hemorrhaging,” Lescota says.

John Kelly concurs. A sales consultant at King Cotton Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Covington, KY, he is painfully aware that consumer confidence is down.

The irony is, Chrysler products have never been better, Kelly says, adding: “I’ll put our quality up against any brand in the country. We don’t see customers for services anymore, other than regular maintenance.”

Chrysler’s newly established Ram brand scored just below the industry average for problems per 100 vehicles, according to the 2010 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. But Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep marques finished well down the list.

Kelly was awaiting word from a colleague attending today’s dealer event in Florida. “More Wranglers” is atop his wish list, referring to the Jeep brand’s best-selling SUV.

Among the new upgrades destined for the ’11 Wrangler are previously announced body-colored removable hardtop roofs.

Kelly is unfazed by the Chrysler badge redesign. “The wings are the key part,” he says. “Jeep has the 7-slot grille, Dodge has the crosshairs-grille. Chrysler has the wings.”

Powertrain enhancements are designed to give wings to Chrysler customers in ’11. The auto maker’s competitiveness improves with the addition of a 6-speed automatic transmission to its midsize car lineup.

To date, Chrysler is the only Detroit auto maker that did not offer a midsize car with a 6-speed automatic mated to a 4-cyl. engine.

Ward’s reported in May this would change after Chrysler announced an unnamed product was destined for its transmission plant in Kokomo, IN, site of a $43 million investment.

Consumers also can opt for a 3.6L Pentastar V-6 in the 200.

Regarding the name change, CEO Sergio Marchionne said earlier this year he feared Chrysler’s ’11 midsize sedan would be tarnished by the Sebring badge. The car, which debuted as an ’07, has been slammed by critics and panned by consumers.

Amid widespread speculation about increasing fleet sales, Sebring sales were up 81.2% through August, compared with prior-year, according to Ward’s data. Chrysler does not report its fleet numbers.

A 3.8L version of the Pentastar V-6 will be available in the Town & Country, which also benefits from new exterior styling and interior feature upgrades.

Almost every vehicle line gets news colors. Ram fullsize pickups will feature a new trim level dubbed “Outdoorsman,” boasting features that appeal to hunters and fishers.

Today’s dealer meeting follows on the heels of recent dealer and media events that highlighted the all-new Dodge Durango fullsize SUV and Fiat 500 minicar.

But the Chrysler has yet to show all its cards for ’11. Still under wraps are:

  • The redesigned Chrysler 300 fullsize sedan
  • The 300’s Dodge Charger platform-mate
  • The Dodge Challenger muscle coupe
  • Dodge Grand Caravan minivan
  • Dodge Avenger midsize car (which historically has shared a platform with the corresponding Chrysler product)
  • Dodge Journey CUV
  • The Jeep Compass cross/utility vehicle.

emayne@wardsauto.com