So explained Saad Chehab, president and CEO of the Chrysler brand, at the recently concluded 2013 New York auto show.
It happens that Chehab is also president and CEO of Lancia, one of Chrysler’s Italian sister brands under Fiat Group. That company may not only sound exotic to North American ears, but it also has a history to match – most notably the indescribably desirable Stratos rally car of the 1970s.
The bridging effort includes touches like leather seats from Poltrona Frau, the same shop that provides hides to Ferrari and Maserati. Dressing its models in rather bespoke threads and marketing them as special editions has had an impact on the company’s bottom line. Chehab notes that 25% of Chrysler brand sales are going to specialised models and limited editions of its familiar products.
To date, the most commonly used bridge has been the 300, Chrysler’s full-size sedan. There is the sportier 300 S, the audiophile-targeted Beats by Dr Dre 300, the broodingly dark 300 customised by GQ Magazine Designer of the Year and Detroit native John Varvatos, and the ice-cool white and black 300 Glacier. “We are making tailored-to-you lifestyle vehicles,” Chehab said. There is even a sportier “S” version of the Town & Country minivan.
Projecting premium-ness while keeping models within reach of a $299 monthly lease payment is especially gratifying, Chehab said. “All we need is to get folks to give us the attention the cars deserve to have,” he added. “They’ll be surprised.”
(They might also be surprised to see that Chrysler roped Varvatos pal and fellow Detroit native Iggy Pop into appearing in a commercial for the Varvatos 300.)
The latest of these limited-run models is a mid-size Chrysler 200 sedan dressed by blue-collar stalwart Carhartt. The sedan features a black water-resistant fabric reminiscent of Carhartt’s work clothes, accented in diesel gray stitching. In a bit of cross-pollination, Carhartt is selling a line of all-black work clothes branded with the phrase “Imported from Detroit”, the slogan made famous by a commercial that aired in 2011 featuring the rapper Eminem. Appropriately, the clothes are designed in Detroit and made in America.
The special edition models have proved particularly popular in California, Chehab said. While Californians pay in the same dollars as residents of other states, their position as trend leaders bodes well for the company’s nationwide success.
Of course, nothing feeds a company’s bottom line better than irresistible high-volume vehicles. The current 200, which was built as a stop-gap for the dismal Chrysler Sebring, will be replaced early next year, followed by a replacement for the Town & Country minivan.
“Our biggest priority is to quickly update and replace these vehicles so that we have competitive, no-shame vehicles,” Chehab explained. For the 200, upgrading will be relatively easy considering its current position near the bottom of most mid-size sedan comparisons.
The Town & Country minivan will be trickier, given the inexorable march of large sport crossovers, which has eroded the position of the stalwart family-mover. Nevertheless, Chrysler will not position the Town & Country’s replacement as a niche product.“Whatever we come up with will be something that we know will be a success,” Chehab said.
Because automakers rarely release sales targets for new models and can spin even plant-idling sales as acceptable, it is always difficult for outside observers to define success. But cars that are selling so fast that there is no time to concoct more appealing special editions might be one benchmark.