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Chrysler's New Gears Grind


THERE'S something about driving home in a new car, but for Mary Zullo, that special feeling only lasted as far as her driveway. By the time Ms. Zullo, an independent trucker from Edison, N.J., reached home in her new Dodge Dynasty, something was clearly wrong. Parking the car, she called the dealer, who ``picked the car up on a flatbed trailer,'' she recalls. ``The dealer called two days later and said I needed a new transmission.''

Despite the quality improvements car manufacturers are making these days, there are always a few isolated problems. But for Chrysler, Zullo's experience was proving to be anything but isolated.

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From across the country, Chrysler began getting word of a high number of failures involving the new Ultradrive four-speed transmission.

Formally known as the A604, the automatic was the first of a new generation of ``smart'' transmissions, using an on-board computer able to adapt to an owner's driving patterns. The Ultradrive is also supposed to adjust itself to compensate for normal wear-and-tear, and even slip into a ``limp-home'' mode in the event of a breakdown. A lot of Ultradrives, it seems, have been limping home - or not moving.

Center seeks recall

In a letter addressed to Chrysler this week, the privately funded Center for Auto Safety (CAS) group charged the A604 is ``the most defective transmission in the industry,'' based on complaints filed with the federal government. Claiming the Ultradrive poses a potential safety hazard, the CAS, wants Chrysler to recall the first 500,000 Ultradrive-equipped vehicles. A million are now on the road.

Chrysler officials denounce the CAS's charges, labeling them ``irresponsible ... fabrications.''

But Chris Theodore, executive engineer with the powertrain engineering unit, doesn't deny there have been a lot of problems with Ultradrives.

Early models suffered from a variety of problems including seals that couldn't keep out dirt, fluid leaks, and a tendency to try to shift into two gears at once.

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Chrysler has already replaced about 19,000 Ultradrives. Tens of thousands more have had to be repaired, including 53,000 recalled last March. Mr. Theodore says that proves Chrysler has tried to ``aggressively'' ensure customers were treated fairly. ``We're concerned, number one, about customer satisfaction,'' Theodore says. But all that doesn't mean the Ultradrive is defective, he adds. New products, Theodore says, always face some problems. ``The launch of this transmission was better than that of the last transmission. It was better than normal.''

Contradicting reports

An internal document prepared for high-ranking Chrysler executives might raise some questions about that assertion, however. It reports Ultradrives suffered 21.6 ``conditions per 100'' units during the first 11 months of 1989. That figure does not indicate actual failures, but rather, it denotes the number of complaints about any type of transmission problems for every 100 transmissions.

By comparison, there were less than five concerns per 100 for the 3-speed automatic that was replaced by the Ultradrive. Theodore downplays the significance of those numbers, and insists improvements have been made recently.

Indeed, according to the internal audit, the Ultradrive scored 11.9 conditions per 100 during the first 11 months of this year, and in recent months, the figure is down below eight. The goal is ``around three.''

Chrysler is refusing to recall all the vehicles equipped with the A604, though it says it will continue to make repairs where needed. Even that more limited action, company insiders suggest, could cost the company perhaps $250 million.

But that may be the least of the company's worries. In discussing the Ultradrive dilemma, Chrysler executives fret that it is unfairly hurting the automaker's image. That may, however, be a case of blaming the messenger for the bad news.

``I'll never buy another Chrysler,'' says owner Mary Zullo.

Chrysler, she admits, was more than willing to repair her car the first time, in November 1988, and came through yet again two months and 3,285 miles later, when the second A604 failed. But Zullo claims she is still having problems with the transmission. And that, she says, is simply too much to deal with.

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