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G. Chambers Williams III: Chrysler charging ahead

Web Posted: 06/18/2005 12:00 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

Everyone in the auto industry looks with awe at Chrysler these days, thanks to big hits the U.S. arm of DaimlerChrysler has scored with cars during the past half-decade — all while maintaining a strong presence in the truck market.

(Photos by G. Chambers Williams/Express-News)

Above: The new Dodge Charger — a sedan version of the Dodge Magnum and a sister to the Chrysler 300 — is coming to dealerships, but its four doors have disappointed some fans of the revered muscle car of the '60s and '70s.

Below: These Dodge Chargers were among more than 80 on display last year during The Dodge Charger Registry's car show on the square in Boerne. In front is a 1970 model owned by Ed Levack of San Antonio.



It started, of course, with the PT Cruiser in 2000, that retro-styled mini-SUV/wagon that was the first of Chrysler Group's gotta-have cars. More recently we got the Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon.

Now the new Dodge Charger — a sedan version of the Magnum and a sister to the 300 — is coming to dealerships.

But that's not all. This company that at least twice in the past three decades was almost given up for dead has more surprises on the way, not only in the Chrysler and Dodge lineups, but also in its Jeep brand.

As an adjunct to the release of the revived Charger, Chrysler also plans to bring out a new Dodge Challenger, the industry weekly Automotive News reported last week.

"Watch out, Ford Mustang. Dodge is preparing a challenger," read the lead of the Automotive News article. "In fact, it's likely to be called Challenger."

There has been no official — or unofficial — announcement from Chrysler, but Automotive News usually gets these things right.

Chrysler spokesman Scott Brown gave the standard answer from automakers when queried about plans for a vehicle not yet acknowledged by the company:

"Our official comment, of course, is that we don't comment about future products," he said.

I told him I just had to ask, even though I knew what his answer would be.

Likewise, other Chrysler executives and spokesmen also declined to discuss the plans, if any, for a new Challenger.

But with next weekend's 17th annual Dodge Charger Meet in Boerne (June 25-26), this is a good time to talk about a Challenger, one of the most revered names from the Charger muscle-car era of the late '60s and early '70s.

At last year's Charger meet, also held on the square in Boerne, I discussed Chrysler's plans for a new Charger with the folks who had dozens of the original Chargers and Challengers in their home garages and on display at the event.

Most said they were looking with interest at any news they could find about the newest Charger but that they were a bit disappointed that it would be a four-door family sedan rather than a two-door muscle car like the original Charger.

Some said they were excited by the idea of having a new Hemi-powered Charger on the market but would reserve judgment and decisions on buying one until they actually saw it.

I haven't talked with any of them since the new Charger was rolled out last month, so I'm not sure how well-received the car will be among the vintage Charger crowd.

But now I'll have something else to talk about when I visit with them in Boerne next weekend: the new Challenger, which apparently will be a two-door model in the same vein as the ones from the '70s. The car was built from 1970 to '74 and was similar in concept to the Mustang.

"Chrysler plans to resurrect a respected name from the pony car era for a rear-wheel-drive Mustang fighter, industry sources say," the Automotive News story said. "The car is expected in 2009 on the LX platform, the basis of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum and Charger."

The timetable seems to stretch the project out a bit longer than I would have expected. To capitalize on the current excitement over the 300, Magnum and '06 Charger, I would have expected to see this new Challenger within a year, maybe two at the most.

But since the LX platform that holds the 300, Magnum and Challenger already has been out for a couple of years, and Chrysler already is working on a major update for it, the company will wait until the next generation of these cars debuts for 2009 to bring out the new Challenger.

Product cycles for cars are about five years these days.

It would be nice to have the Challenger sooner, but then Chrysler would have to update it for 2009, and that would not be cost-efficient.

It does make sense to expand use of the LX platform, especially with yet another retro-type car, even if the new vehicle is retro in name only, like the Charger.

Retro sells these days, as baby boomers look to recapture some of their lost youth — just look at the runaway success of the all-new Mustang for 2005, which looks a lot like the late '60s models.

And the new Challenger just might silence the critics of the Charger's four-door configuration. They'll get their two-door model; it just won't be a Charger, it will be a Challenger.

"It is a two-door, essentially a competitor for the Mustang," Catherine Madden, a production analyst for industry research group Global Insight, told Automotive News. "They are really excited about it."

She added, "The enthusiasm for that product is very big."

Chrysler hopes to sell 60,000 to 70,000 of the cars a year, Madden told the magazine, which said an assembly site has not been identified.

Chrysler builds the 300, Magnum and Charger at its Brampton, Ontario, plant, and unless the company expands production of those cars to other plants, one would assume the Challenger would be built there if the plant has sufficient capacity.

The sales goals aren't quite Mustang-high. Ford is poised to sell nearly 200,000 of its new Mustangs this year. Dealers report that they have waiting lists for the most-popular models and that customers are paying sticker prices. No discounts or rebates are needed yet.

A new Chrysler sport utility coming?

Before the new Challenger arrives, Chrysler also might be adding another SUV to its lineup, this one based on the Dodge Durango, a truck-based vehicle.

Chrysler already has the popular Pacifica, a crossover model based on the chassis of the Town and Country minivan and the smaller PT Cruiser, which also is car-based.

The brand has no trucklike SUVs in its lineup now, though. In fact, it has no truck-based products at all, having left that sort of vehicle to the Dodge line so far.

Automotive News and the Web site www.autoextremist.com say this vehicle is under development, although once again Chrysler is not talking about it.

The vehicle might be called the Newport, another name from Chrysler's past (although that was on a premium sedan, not a truck), said Peter DeLorenzo, editor of autoextremist.com.

Plans are for the Chrysler version of the Durango to reach showrooms next summer, Automotive News said, adding that it could be introduced to the media at the 2006 Detroit auto show in early January.

Two new car-based Jeeps on the way?

Jeep, too, is planning more vehicles, Automotive News said, which could help build up Chrysler's third U.S. brand.

Chrysler purchased Jeep from American Motors in 1987 and has been developing it rather slowly ever since.

But all of a sudden, it appears Jeep will be getting a lot more attention as Chrysler attempts to boost sales and bring the original SUV brand more into the mainstream.

Using the chassis of the next-generation small car from Chrysler — the Dodge Caliber hatchback, which will replace the Neon — Chrysler will develop not one but two new Jeep vehicles, the magazine said, quoting unnamed industry sources.

With expected total annual sales of 90,000, these two cars would be the first Jeep vehicles that aren't designed for serious off-roading, carrying forth a suggestion by DaimlerChrysler's top executive last year that not all new Jeeps would necessarily have to be designed as off-road vehicles.

The Caliber, developed in conjunction with partner Mitsubishi, was shown in Geneva earlier this year.

Dodge Charger meet coming next weekend

As mentioned, the 17th annual Dodge Charger meet will be held June 25-26 on the square in downtown Boerne, and it's open to the public.

Dozens of these classic Dodge muscle cars will be on display on the Boerne plaza from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. June 25 and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 26.

As usual, the cars and their owners will be coming to the event from all over Texas and other states, as well.

There is no admission charge to come see the cars. The event is sponsored by The Dodge Charger Registry, a national organization of Charger aficionados.

For more information, call (830) 981-5383.
 
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