Fiat Chrysler Still Believes in Cars
The company figures it can stand out as others shrink away.
Remember Fiat Chrysler's second Five-Year Plan, outlined for the 2014-2018 model years? Things looked bleak for the Chrysler 300, as it was slated to be replaced by a front-drive sedan sharing a platform with the Pacifica (then named Town & Country) minivan and a new three-row midsize crossover. Dodge's prospects were more promising, with the Charger and Challenger to be downsized and placed on Alfa Romeo's rear-wheel-drive Giorgio platform shared with the Giulia and the Stelvio.
By the time then CEO Sergio Marchionne provided that outline, we had learned that Fiat Chrysler was only indicating ambitions—a large number of the product programs detailed would be dramatically changed or cancelled. And beside, the Giorgio platform already was over budget and behind schedule.
Last June, at the presentation for Five-Year Plan III in Balocco, Italy, weeks before Marchionne's untimely death, he answered my question about the status of those Giorgio ambitions for Dodge Charger and Challenger. "I'm convinced that we don't need to go as far as the Giorgio architecture," he replied, adding that Giorgio's European dynamics were ill-suited to the Dodges' outlandish American muscle-car personalities. The next Charger and Challenger would instead arrive on a highly evolved version of their current platform, one that Fiat Chrysler maintains had already been highly evolved away from its hand-me-down Mercedes-Benz roots.
More recently, Steve Beahm spoke with me about Fiat Chrysler's plans for its car divisions, including Fiat, Chrysler, SRT, and Dodge. As head of the automaker's car brands, he's in charge of the entirety of the divisions and also helms the Fiat 500X, Dodge Durango, and Chrysler Pacifica minivans, among others.
"I can't deny that there has been a trend of fewer passenger cars across the industry," he told me. "I think that our company saw that maybe quicker than some others. And we made steps or changes within the company to deal with that. What we decided was that once that happened, our job was to [ask,] 'How do we differentiate within the brands that are going to remain passenger-car brands?' "
The Dodge Charger plays in the full-size car segment, but Beahm says it's "really a four-door muscle car that's playing in a full-size car segment. What we do is we try to make our vehicles look different." It's this strategy that no doubt also plays into the steady stream of Charger and Challenger special editions and variants released by the company.
Such rear-wheel-drive cars are not at a disadvantage for fuel economy. The V-6 rear-drive versions of the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 are rated for 19 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, topping the lame-duck Chevrolet Impala FWD V-6's 19/28 mpg. The new, FWD, non-hybrid V-6 Toyota Avalon is better at 22/31 mpg, although Fiat Chrysler might be able to match that in the future by adding the 48-volt electrical system available on some versions of the Ram 1500 and Jeep Wrangler, which recaptures some energy to power accessories and make the powertrain more efficient.
The Dodge Challenger V-6 automatic's fuel efficiency also is competitive with similar Ford Mustangs and Chevy Camaros, though those competitors' turbo fours are up to 3 mpg city and 2 mpg highway better. While most of us would choose some form of Hemi V-8 for our Chargers and Challengers, the V-6 automatics are the volume models. It's that level of volume that would make a difference in Fiat Chrysler's Corporate Average Fuel Economy number.
When I asked Beahm if he's confident the RWD Charger/Challenger platform is good enough to stick around for a few more years, he replied, "I'm going to use a bad phrase here, maybe. It's like fine wine, it keeps getting better with time." It doesn't hurt that Dodge Charger is the bestseller in the full-size sedan segment, albeit including police-vehicle sales, which it doesn't break out from civilian sales. Meanwhile, the next bestselling full-size sedan, the Chevy Impala, has been discontinued.
Dodge sold 80,226 Chargers last year, and while that's down by 9.2 percent from 2017, Impala sales fell 25.5 percent, to 56,556 cars. The Chrysler 300 was third, at 46,593, off 9.1 percent. Combine the Dodge and Chrysler, and they sold a healthy 126,819. Will Dodge be able to sell that many Chargers on its own when the RWD 300 is discontinued? "You know, in terms of its (sales) performance, it's doing great," Beahm says of the Chrysler 300. "We like where it's positioned; it provides great value. It's a lot of car for the money."
Then why discontinue it?
"We haven't announced we will discontinue it. I mean, we've announced we'll sell it through this year."
But the old Five-Year Plan, the one from five years ago, was to move it to the minivan's FWD platform. I told Beahm not to do that.
"Yeah, I think we agree with your opinion."
While the full-size sedan segment is shrinking with the Impala, Buick LaCrosse, and Ford Taurus about to be killed off, it's not disappearing. If the Chrysler 300 manages to hold on beyond the 2019 model year, there will be as many RWD cars in the segment (which does not include the RWD luxury models from Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Genesis, etc.) as there will be FWD ones.
Now, I'm not an anti-FWD enthusiast, and I'd point to the Hyundai Veloster as an example of how good front-drive dynamics can be. But when a car gets to a certain overall length, RWD provides not just better design proportion, but also better balance and handling. Generally, you don't have to stiffen up the suspension on an otherwise cushy RWD sedan to reduce understeer.
Even big, tall SUVs benefit from longitudinal-engine, RWD-based platforms, as Ford Motor Company has learned from its new Explorer and Lincoln Aviator, even if they went rear-drive mostly to put volume into a next-generation Mustang and probably a Lincoln sedan. Unfortunately, Cadillac, which has aggressively returned to RWD cars in the last couple of decades didn't do the same for its new XT6 SUV.
The lesson is, if you're going to continue to build sedans as others leave the market, maybe they should be long, low, and expressive, and rear-drive for the more enthusiast-oriented buyers. A company's mainstream customers go for the most practical, most capacious SUVs in their segments, anyway. This strategy seems to be working for Fiat Chrysler.