Dodge ends centennial year; Viper next on deck

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Los Angeles – — Dodge culminated its 100th anniversary year with a 707-horsepower Hellcat engine and a party last month with Motley Crue. But the brand doesn't plan to drive into 2015 on cruise control.

Dodge CEO and President Tim Kuniskis said the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV brand will now turn its attention to its iconic Viper, which recently had a spike in sales following a $15,000 price cut. Prices now start at about $85,000.

Kuniskis would not elaborate on what Dodge has planned for the hand-built supercar, but the price cut and a cameo in a recent "Dodge Brothers" commercial has increased interest in the car. Kuniskis plans to capitalize on that boost.

"We're going to tell a story here shortly that I think has needed to be told for a long time about how this is the only handmade supercar in the industry," he told The Detroit News on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The Viper, built at Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit, takes 10 days to build, including hand-laying its 45 percent carbon-fiber body. Sanding, painting and buffing the cars, which a supplier does, takes an additional 140-160 hours of labor.

Viper production began in May 1992 at Mack Assembly Plant. It moved to the Conner Avenue site in October 1995. In 23 years, Chrysler has built about 30,000 Vipers. The cars were not produced from July 2010 to January 2013.

Dodge plans to turn its attention to the hand-built Viper in 2015.

Viper Owners Association President Maurice Liang said it's the exclusiveness and "courageousness" of the car since its introduction more than 20 years ago that make the Viper special.

"I think it's that combination of the looks, the power and the uniquely American character of it," said Liang, a California resident and owner of three Vipers. "It just stops you dead in your tracks. It's both sexy and mean all at the same time."

Since the Viper's reintroduction two years ago, Chrysler has sold about 1,200, including 671 through November of this year. After the price cut, month-to-month sales more than doubled to 108 cars in September.

"It went from 'Wow, that's expensive' to 'That's a great value,' " Kuniskis said.

The Viper, when introduced 22 years ago, started at $50,700. Adjusted for inflation, the equivalent in today's dollars would be $86,130 about the starting price of the 2015 model including taxes and fees.

"If they're going to have to have that edge, if they're going to be that destination for enthusiasts, they have to have that halo car," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez. "Keeping the Viper out there and making sure it's priced right is of the utmost importance for them, particularly given the amount of competition out there."

The price cut also came six months after Chrysler said it would shut down its Viper plant for more than two months following weaker-than-expected sales for the then-$100,000 car.

The Viper was folded back into the Dodge brand earlier this year, following the high-performance SRT brand shifting to be under Kuniskis and Dodge.

A centennial year

Brothers John F. and Horace E. Dodge started the car company in 1914. They released their first vehicle in November of that year. Chrysler purchased Dodge in 1928.

For a year, Chrysler celebrated the 100th anniversary of Dodge with special-edition products, displays of vehicles from the past 100 years and consumer events across the country.

On the product side, the brand introduced 100th anniversary editions of the Charger and Challenger; introduced the next-generation Charger and a refreshed Challenger that include the 707-horsepower Hellcat models; repositioned the Viper; and moved SRT into Dodge.

For Dodge enthusiasts, the brand held dozens of events across the country, including a Nov. 1 party featuring Motley Crue called "Dodge Rocks Gas Monkey" in Dallas. The party, for 2,000 Dodge owners and guests, included a car show and Motley Crue concert. It also launched memorable ad campaigns — from Will Ferrell pitching the Durango as "Anchorman" Ron Burgundy, to senior citizens burning rubber.

Reflecting on 2014, Kuniskis smiles and admits the brand "did a lot this year," but the party "was the perfect storm of everything coming together."

What's ahead

Following better-than-expected sales in 2014, Kuniskis predicts Dodge sales will decline next year, after Avenger got the ax and the Chrysler 200 became Chrysler's lone mid-size sedan. That's a change from the announced plan in May, which called for small increases through 2018.

Through November, Dodge sold 527,577 vehicles in the U.S., a 4 percent decline compared to 2013. The five-year plan called for sales to total 546,000 in 2014, which it's expected to surpass.

Part of the slower pace for growth is because Dodge is being positioned as a "mainstream performance brand," and the brand is dropping its top-selling Caravan minivan in 2016.

By 2018, as outlined by executives in May during a five-year business plan, Dodge plans to have 11 nameplates in showrooms, including SRT models.