Dodge, Ram thrive 5 years after split

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News
2015 Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab 4X4

Splitting up can be difficult, especially if the former partners still work in the same office.

That's not the case with Dodge and Ram Truck. Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne separated the brands five years ago, and their leaders and vehicles seem to be better off because of it.

"Truck always wanted to be big, bold, powerful and capable," said Ram CEO and President Bob Hegbloom during a recent interview. "The cars wanted to be youthful, spirited, and they're the ones who want to have a Hellcat in their lineup."

The feeling is mutual at Dodge, according to the leader of the muscle-car maker.

"Separating the Ram and Dodge brands has resulted in the best outcome for both," Dodge CEO and President Tim Kuniskis told The Detroit News. "It's allowed Ram to focus on the commercial market. And it's allowed Dodge to focus on being a performance brand."

Ram has led the company in sales growth since 2009 and is the fastest-growing truck brand in the country, nearly doubling its market share to about roughly 22 percent of the full-size pickup market.

Dodge increased sales 41 percent from 2009-2014, and is getting its groove back as a true performance brand thanks to rekindling its relationship with the SRT high-performance division with two 707-horsepower cars and the iconic Viper.

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

When the split occurred in October 2009, some criticized the post-bankruptcy decision, saying it made no sense. Many questioned if Chrysler itself would survive. senior analyst Michelle Krebs, who was a skeptic of the split, argues that improved products and better market conditions are what continue to drive the brands. "I think a lot of other people still say Dodge Ram, so there is still some confusion with the brands," she said. "But you can't argue with the sales success."

Both Kuniskis and Hegbloom say new products helped drive sales, but add that the split helped both brands find their niches. Look no further than their recent marketing campaigns to show how different the two brands have become.

Dodge has gone with the likes of comedian Will Ferrell. His Ron Burgundy character touted the Dodge Durango and the entire lineup. The campaign, which launched nearly a year ago, featured Ferrell in a retro-style showroom discussing how many pieces of gum could fit in a glove box, and engaging in a staring contest with a horse.

Ram has stayed tried-and-true with one resounding voice, actor Sam Elliott, best known for his horseshoe mustache and Western drawl.

"You hear Sam, he is the absolutely perfect spokesperson for Ram Truck," said Hegbloom, who worked on Dodge Truck marketing for nearly a decade. "You couldn't use Ron Burgundy for Ram."

That differentiation between the brands is expected to continue under an ambitious 2014-2018 business plan outlined by Marchionne earlier this year.

Dodge will reconnect with its performance roots, dropping the Avenger mid-size sedan and Grand Caravan minivan for two new high-performance SRT cars and an unnamed small sedan/hatchback. Brand sales are expected to top 600,000 vehicles in the U.S, up from 327,000 in 2009 and an expected 546,000 this year.

Ram, including its commercial division, will concentrate on pickups primarily, as well as its growing sales of its commercial van. Ram sales in North America are expected to increase 34 percent from 2013-2018 to 620,000 vehicles sold.

"We have to continue to monitor the market, remain competitive," Hegbloom said. "That's really our focus right now."

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