Chrysler's 2011 Fleet Preview in Austin was markedly different than last year's in Detroit, when the automaker somberly announced its post-bankruptcy game plan. Then, much of the product was in "look, don't touch" mode. This week, not only could we finally drive new vehicles, we could take photos. (See enclosed slideshow.) And this year was markedly different in mood. Worldwide sales are up 15 percent and the Chrysler pipeline is flowing again, as the automaker is in the midst of launching 16 new or majorly refreshed vehicles.
The Chrysler Group specifically is targeting 2.8 million total (retail and fleet) sales by 2014. For new brand partner Fiat, the white space is North America; for Chrysler, it's Europe and Latin America. Nonetheless, reflecting the new religion in auto manufacturing, "We are building to demand," said Pete Grady vice president of network development and fleet.
Grady noted the Japan earthquake/tsunami tragedy, and referenced that for Chrysler this is an issue with its parts suppliers. "Supply chain management is taking steps to not interrupt production," Grady said.
The Chrysler fleet Web site, which the automaker admits it lagged behind its competitors, got a major refresh last July and is in the midst of a final revamp. It now includes interactive sales maps and more photos and information. A new program gives 360-degree views of any vehicle in any available paint color.
Chrysler has instituted regional, "low-key" ride and drives by brand, giving fleet managers an opportunity to kick the tires on new product without having to travel very far. The Dodge tour has just finished while the Chrysler tour is happening now.
The fleet dealership count now stands at 486 BusinessLink dealers and 516 medium-duty dealers.
Kicking the Tires
I had driven the Fiat 500 before, and got another chance this week. It's got plenty of personality-the tasteful, sculpted, ergonomically pleasing interior makes you want to be driving down Collins Ave. in Miami Beach. The model we drove was two-tone siren red and cream with a leather steering wheel. My driving partner was 6' 6" and he actually fit behind the wheel, though his head scraped against the moonroof. (I liked the moonroof's pullover netting.) Not quite the performance vehicle the Mini is (but a few grand cheaper!), the car hugged had some pep off the line, helped by the five-speed stick, and a stiff suspension that kept it hugging the corners. The rental guys were enthusiastic about working some into fleet. For commercial fleets, it's perfect as a city car-just slap a company logo on the side and get noticed.
The Dodge Charger Police Pursuit vehicle was generating a lot of excitement from the cops and city fleet managers. The Charger is a vehicle that "cops want to drive." One referenced that the six cylinder on the older model was a bit sluggish, though this one "shot right out of the gate" with the Pentastar Six. Moving up to the Hemi, the good guys are winning all pursuits. The cops liked the fact that the Pursuit Charger is built stateside, improving order to delivery over a major competitor.
The Chrysler 200 enters the extremely competitive midsize sedan segment as "much improved over its predecessor," according to many comments after test drives. The new 200 is a decidedly non-flashy version of its bigger brother, the 300, though the exterior is sportier than the Sebring. The interior is Spartan but clean, and classier. The ride is quiet. The most pleasant surprise was the Pentastar V-6. It gets you up to speed surprisingly fast and, if we had a more open road to play, would keep on giving-and it gets 19/29 mpg.
The Dodge Durango has been reborn in a unibody construction, though it still carries serious capabilities-the Hemi V-8 will tow up to 7,400 lbs. Fuel economy on my top-of-the-line V-8 Durango Citadel was 14/19 and the price tag was just north of $47,000. But you can cram a lot in there: 85 cubic feet storage with the second and third seats stowed. For the more fuel conscious, the Pentastar six lists at 23 mpg on the highway.
For delivery fleets, the 2012 Ram C/V cargo van, a new work van based off the Dodge Caravan, is aimed squarely at the small van market and the Ford Transit Connect. Though it doesn't have the exterior height of the Transit Connect, it does offer greater overall cargo capacity (143.8 cu. ft. vs. 129.6 for the TC), more horsepower through the Pentastar six (a whopping 283 hp vs. 136 hp), higher payload (1,800 lbs. vs. 1,600) and is tow-rated where the TC isn't. Fuel economy is slightly less than the TC, but when you're not hauling, try "Eco mode" to sip gas. A more accessible oil drain plug allows for DIY oil changes, but you may last longer between changes-the system measures oil viscosity, which could allow 8,000-mile intervals under some driving conditions. The price tag for the Ram C/V is $21,800, or $600 more for a lot more capability, as Chrysler puts it.
A lot of cars featured UConnect, Chrysler's version of Ford's Sync. The system, through a 7.4" touch screen, allows for voice-activated, hands-free cell phone calls (you can pair up to seven phones), and control navigation and the entertainment system by voice. It's Wi-Fi enabled and has a 30 gig hard drive. An upgrade now, these types of systems will become ubiquitous in the way we control communication, navigation and entertainment in any car in the near future.