November 5, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Scott Burgess

Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler get makeover

New 300 in 2010. (Chrysler Group)

Chrysler Group LLC wants to hit the restart button on its entire lineup, refreshing, redesigning or replacing every car and truck, swapping out engines and creating vehicles people want.

By 2012, Chrysler will have overhauled or replaced its entire lineup.

Good luck.

Right now, Chrysler is dangling off a cliff. The automaker is growing smaller every month and sits at the bottom of most quality ratings.

There may be reasons behind the poor quality of its vehicles, but consumers see them as excuses, and these self-inflicted wounds could be fatal.

But there is hope. Still.

From the Chrysler PT Cruiser to Ram 3500 heavy-duty pickup, changes are coming, top to bottom, inside and out.

From little tiny diesel engines to an all-new 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi, Chrysler has planned the biggest vehicle makeover in its history.

"Every car is going to be repackaged," said Ralph Gilles, the automaker's design chief and president of Dodge, a brand that will no longer have pickups in its lineup as Chrysler makes Ram a standalone brand. "Quality will be among the best in the world."

Gilles showed off the new crisp and clean interior of the Dodge Caliber. And he talked about moves to make Dodge Nitro into an urban cruiser instead of the Jeep Liberty knock-off it has become.

Many changes are extreme. Dodge, for example, plans to introduce new subcompact, compact, midsize and large cars in its lineup. That's pretty much everything.

Chrysler to stress luxury

Perhaps the biggest change will come with the Chrysler brand, which needs a personality overhaul, executives said.

Chrysler hopes to recapture its luxury image, making over the Sebring and introducing an all-new 300. In the future, Chrysler will introduce a midsize crossover, a compact sedan and a subcompact car.

Chrysler knows big engines, but it needs the technical expertise for small displacement engines and little diesels, which Fiat SpA can provide.

Paolo Ferrero, who leads its powertrain development, said the two companies fit together well.

When the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee arrives next year, it will feature the all-new 280-horsepower Pentastar V6 that will ultimately replace all of Chrysler's V-6s ranging in size from 2.7 liters to 4 liters.

Additionally, Fiat will help bring small diesel engines to the United States, Ferrero said.

Hopefully, when the tiny Fiat 500 arrives at the end of next year, it will have an optional diesel engine, and billboards will tout its 50-plus miles per gallon.

Chrysler also is committed to replacing its four-speed transmissions with more efficient six-speeds.

Quality is stressed

The time for incremental improvements is over.

Every vehicle needs to represent the very best Chrysler has to offer. Swaths of hard plastic across the dash, unfinished details or ill-conceived interiors will kill this company. The Dodge Caravan will undergo an interior overhaul to try to match the likes of the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.

Quality is a big issue.

Jack Nerad, executive editor and industry analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said Chrysler has a long way to go, given its "abysmal quality" ranking. "But I'm impressed with some of the improvements they're talking about making," he said.

Doug Betts, Chrysler's senior vice president for quality, admitted quality is a sensitive issue. "We will change, we will have a different result," he said.

Joe Phillippi, an analyst with New Jersey-based Auto Trends, said "so many things have to work" for Chrysler's plan to succeed. Changing consumer perception takes time.

"Even if everything is improved, consumers may not think so," he said.

Of course, for Chrysler to survive, some vehicles will die.

Some have to go

The Dodge Viper will disappear; another high-performance halo car could re-emerge in 2012. The Dodge Caliber will retire in 2012, replaced with a compact sedan.

Jeep was not as clear about the fate of the Commander, but said the lackluster Compass will disappear and a subcompact Jeep will arrive in 2013.

The mediocre midsize Dodge Avenger will live for a few more years. Dodge will overhaul its interior next year and then replace it in 2013.

These are sacrifices that should have been made long ago.

Good riddance, good luck and Godspeed.

Who's who?

Chrysler's management team is led by Chairman Robert Kidder and CEO Sergio Marchionne, who has a team of 25 reporting to him charged with remaking Chrysler into a profitable, competitive player in the global auto market.
Some key executives:
C. Robert Kidder
Sergio Marchionne
Chief executive officer
Doug D. Betts
Senior vice president, quality
Fred Diaz
President and CEO, Ram brand
Frank J. Ewasyshyn
Executive vice president, manufacturing
Paolo E. Ferrero
Senior vice president, Chrysler powertrain
Olivier Francois
President and CEO, Chrysler brand
Scott R. Garberding
Head of manufacturing, world class manufacturing
Ralph V. Gilles
President and CEO, Dodge brand
Senior vice president, product design
Pietro Gorlier
President and CEO, MOPAR
Peter Grady
Vice president, network development and fleet
Dan C. Knott
Head of purchasing
Scott Kunselman
Senior vice president, engineering
Michael Manley
President and CEO, Jeep brand
Richard Palmer
Chief financial officer
Joseph Veltri
Vice president, product planning

Grand Cherokee to be redesigned. (Chrysler Group)
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