SONOMA, CALIF.—“Passionate cars from passionate people.”
That’s how Ralph Gilles, President and CEO of the Dodge brand, describes his division’s 2011 line-up.
You won’t find a more passionate car guy than the Montreal-raised Gilles.
An active car racer and three-time Targa Newfoundland competitor, Gilles also proves there is life after the design studio — he recently added this management title to that of Senior Vice President, Design for the overall Chrysler Group.
And because Chryslers are effectively designed and engineered by the same people, you’ll expect the same sort of passion in Chrysler-badged vehicles, too.
Chrysler Canada president and CEO Reid Bigland notes that the company will launch 16 new or significantly-upgraded, heavily-revamped vehicles over the next few months.
No fewer than eight of them were unveiled during a single media event here in Northern California; most receive their public debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, detailed elsewhere in Wheels today.
We told you about one of the “new” debutantes (if that isn’t technically redundant), the Dodge Charger, last week.
Another is the all-new Dodge Durango SUV, a nameplate that has returned to the market after a two-year absence.
It has been re-positioned as a “Crossover,” as if that nomenclature would make it ride and drive any better.
No, it rides and drives a billion times better because it and the recently-launched Grand Cherokee share their platform with the Mercedes-Benz ML/GL Class, with Durango using the stretched-wheelbase version.
Grand Cherokee/Durango development began while the “merger of equals” — i.e., the takeover of Chrysler by Daimler Benz — was still in operation.
“But these were co-developed programs,” assures Gilles. “These are not hand-me-down platforms. Also, we’re coming out about a year ahead of Mercedes.”
This timing reflects Chrysler’s new, leaner, faster way of doing things under its new management, headed by the Toronto-raised Sergio Marchionne, who is also the boss man at Fiat, Chrysler’s parent company.
“The new management allows the engineers who know how to drive to develop the cars,” says Gilles. “Not some executive who only knows how to drive a desk, who flies in on a private plane and decides how to change the suspension.”
Marchionne is a lawyer, not an engineer.
“But you can’t underestimate his impact,” says Bigland.
“He maintains a laser-beam focus on product. He has dedicated $24 billion in capital investment in product, $8 billion on these 16 products alone.
“The Grand Cherokee was already well underway before he came on board (June 2009). But he would walk right onto the shop floor to make sure it was right.”
Under the “significantly-updated” category in the eight newbies we’re looking at today were the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, which collectively still dominate the smaller-than-it-was-but-still-huge minivan market in Canada; the Dodge Journey, a vehicle that was — is — largely devoid of passion but which generally maintains a top-10 sales rank in Canada by virtue of its interior size, functionality and low price; the mid-size Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 mid-size sedans (the Sebring nameplate is no more); and the Dodge Challenger pony car.
That’s a lot of vehicles to pack into a day and a half of testing; there simply wasn’t time to get into them all.
We’ll give you more details on each as we test them in more depth over the coming weeks and months. But all these vehicles share some key attributes, beyond the somewhat imprecise and unquantifiable “passion.”
Without doubt the biggest improvement, in what has long been Chrysler’s worst area.
Klaus Busse, the German-born Head of Interior Design and Component Commonization who joined Chrysler from Mercedes-Benz, used the Journey as an example.
“The interior left some room for improvement,” he observed, his nomination for “understatement of the year” eliciting knowing chuckles from the assembled multitudes.
“It wasn’t necessarily spending more money,” he added, “but spending it more wisely.”
Things like one-piece stamped aluminum instrument panels, which not only reduce parts count, but require fewer assembly steps; higher-quality materials, especially where occupants touch the vehicle; reduced panel gaps; improved ergonomics — it all adds up to much nicer places to spend your driving or riding time.
One new feature is the “Super Stow ‘n’ Go” middle-row seating for the minivans. You can now fold the right- or left-side seat up into the wells in the floor, including having the headrest un-deploy itself, with one hand using a single lever.
Okay, you may have to hold the hinged floor panel up with your other hand, but it’s still a heck of a lot easier than before.
If comfort is more important than convenient conversion from people-mover to cargo-hauler, there is also a thicker, more sumptuous luxury seating option on the Town & Country.
More power, less fuel. Not an easy trick, but gains have been made across the board on both counts.
The most notable innovation is the new Pentastar V6, a thoroughly modern twin-cam ,multi-valve, variable valve timing, 3.6 litre engine that was launched with the Grand Cherokee earlier this year.
It replaces no fewer than six different V6 engines, and is offered in darn-near everything the company makes.
Power varies depending on application, from 283 horsepower in the minivans, Avenger/200 and Journey, to 305 in the Challenger.
In every model, that number is substantially higher than before (e.g., 108 more than the base V6 in the 2010 Grand Caravan).
Yet fuel consumption is also improved in every case, by two to four m.p.g.—in the neighbourhood of 0.5 to 0.6 litres per 100 km.
No turbo or direct fuel injection, but I can assure you, both are in the tool kit should Chrysler decide to utilize them.
In the transverse-mounted engine applications, the Pentastar is mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission, which again aids economy as well as performance.
If big-block V8 power is more your style, there’s a new 6.4 litre Hemi V8 in the Challenger whose 470 horsepower is 45 more than the former 6.1 litre.
Nothing dramatically new in any of the vehicles here, just classic detail engineering.
In Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200, for example, 30 of the 36 suspension bushings have been re-done.
These cars needed all the help they could get. Fine-tuning of springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars and careful tire selection have improved ride and handling on all models.
There’s even a sporty version of the Caravan.
Noise Vibration and Harshness
Good “NVH”, as it is referred to in the business, is a key to quality for consumers. Rattles, buzzes, squeaks, engine drone — nothing says “cheap” more clearly than, well, “cheep”.
Again, it’s detail engineering to the rescue, as noise sources have been hunted down where possible, and noise paths into the cabin blocked otherwise.
This attribute sits at the top of the “customer wants and needs” list for just about every vehicle segment, except perhaps sports cars.
Richard Cox, Product Strategist for Chrysler Canada, says that in virtually every model line, the vehicles have added hundreds to thousands of dollars worth of features. Yet prices are up by much smaller amounts, and in some cases are the same or even lower than last year.
Cox also claims the vehicles to be hundreds to thousands of dollars lower than comparably-equipped competitors.
Perhaps the most dramatic comparison is the Durango versus the Mercedes-Benz GL.
“You could almost get two Durangos for the price of one GL,” he smiles, “yet they’re based on the same hardware and have comparable equipment.
“And the Pentastar engine gets comparable fuel consumption even to their diesel engines, at a far lower cost.”
Hmm-mm — just how much IS that three-pointed star worth?
This strategy is already working. Sales of the new Grand Cherokee are very strong, and Chrysler overall is doing very well in Canada right now.
This new product onslaught starts arriving in showrooms over the next few weeks, and in volume early in the New Year — when we will also be getting the uber-cute Fiat 500.