"We'd like to sell more conventional cars but..."

Even without a Dodge edition of the torrid Chrysler PT Cruiser... Despite the U.S. Chrysler Group's financial problems this year...

In the teeth of rough competition in the truck/van/SUV arena...

The venerable old Dodge brand has held fast to its third-place ranking in new-car and truck sales and for 2000 should equal or surpass its previous all-time record of 1.4 million retail deliveries, set in 1999.

That's the optimistic view of the Dodge outlook from Vice President James R. Julow, who has headed the Dodge side of the DaimlerChrysler world since 1998.

Mr. Julow, 47, though he's aware of Dodge dealers yearning for a "Dodge Cruiser," smilingly dismisses the notion and proceeds to discuss the contributions the nearly 2,988 Dodge retailers have made in 2000 towards fending off Toyota's bid for third place on the volume leader board.

"This has been a seesaw year for us," he declares. "After a great winter and spring, we tried some incentives that backfired over June and July. August and September were good as we concentrated on clearing out the 2000-model Caravans, prior to the restyled '01s.

"But October was soft again - and at the beginning of November, we reintroduced incentives to keep up with the competition."

In addition to the new Caravan and Grand Caravan, Mr. Julow is counting on the Dakota pickup's Quad Cab and the updated '01 Stratus sedan and coupe to keep Dodge sales humming, even if DaimlerChrysler's "official" forecast of a sales downturn of about 5% materializes in 2001.

"The Quad Cab is growing in popularity as a family pickup with all-wheel drive, and the Stratus is giving our car sales a boost as a true sports sedan and coupe," says Mr. Julow, whose pre-DC career included 10 years at American Motors in engineering and marketing.

"We are concerned about giving the dealers spiffier cars to sell, and the Stratus sports coupe is a response to their need. But, actually, the market is tending towards more car-based SUVs and pickups, as the Dakota and Durango accommodate personal needs of consumers."

Being unveiled at Detroit's North American International Auto Show this January is a new Dakota-based pickup with a Quad Cap option.

Mr. Julow says "We'd like to sell more conventional cars but, realistically, four-passenger trucks and crossover vehicles are eroding the traditional passenger-car market and we need to compete in that segment."

An innovator in design (i.e., Viper, Ram, Dakota Quad Cab), Dodge also launched the new Stratus on a regional rather than a national basis this year in a departure from tradition.

The Midwest got Stratus first, followed by the East Coast and the West Coast. Mr. Julow says that stretched out launch period worked more effectively.

He says the exclusive all-wheel-drive option helps keep Caravan ahead of all competitors in minivan sales. It saw 255,779 deliveries in the January-October period of this year, up from 248,762 in the 1999 period.

Mr. Julow forecasts continued minivan dominance by the Chrysler Group "for the foreseeable future."

Dodge dealers are satisfied with the Five Star awards program, he notes. And new Dodge dealership buildings rising in metro markets such as Des Moines, IA, Dallas and Atlanta "attest to the close relationship we have developed with the dealers. These new buildings are stunning and affirm the dealers' support of our product plans."

The Dodge brand dates to 1918 and its flatbed trucks were the reason Walter P. Chrysler acquired Dodge for his fledgling auto company in the 1920s.

"There have been a lot of long-running Dodge nameplates in all those years," notes Mr. Julow. "But none like the Viper since 1992 and the Caravan since 1984. Those vehicles have been real brand builders."