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Chrysler Introduces Sleek Sedans

Automaker hopes design will revitalize moribund passenger car lineup and ease bottom line

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THE success - or failure - of Chrysler Corporation's new midsized sedans depends on whether the carmaker can win over a skeptical baby-boom generation that has largely written off the domestic auto industry.

How the L/H sedans fair will likely also determine the company's future, despite Chrysler's surprisingly strong second-quarter earnings: a $178 million profit announced Tuesday.

But the boost in earnings came from Chrysler's truck and minivan lines which sold 50 percent more than its cars, demonstrating how important it will be for the automaker to revitalize its moribund passenger car lineup.

Chrysler has spent $1.8 billion to design the L/H, which will be marketed under three different brand names: Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, and Eagle Vision.

At first glance, the sleek cars stand in stark contrast to the boxy styling of past Chrysler sedans. The cars are an aggressive example of "cab forward" design, with the engine and windshield pushed forward and rear wheels moved back to increase interior space.

"These vehicles are absolutely superb," says Joseph Phillippi, auto analyst with Shearson Lehman Brothers. "Clearly, they've got a winner on their hands."

The sentiment was echoed by dozens of other auto analysts and reporters who attended a recent preview in southern California.

But Mr. Phillippi cautions that it is not good enough to just design a great car. Chrysler is taking on some tough competition, cars like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, he notes.

"It's a question of convincing the 25- to 45-year age group to go to a domestic dealership" just to take a look, he says.

Chrysler will not formally introduce the L/H until election day, Nov. 3, when it will launch a big print and TV ad campaign. But as the company begins to ship the first 1,000 sedans to dealers across the country, Chrysler is already waging a campaign to win the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of potential customers.

With more than a dozen midsized models already on the market, Chrysler will take several unusual steps to stand out:

* It will offer free, three-day test drives to more than 10,000 "opinion leaders" nationwide.

* It will mail more than a million videotaped "test drives" to potential buyers.

* It will sponsor ballets, operas, sports, and other activities hoping to reach its target market.

The marketing campaign relies on the concept of "psychographics," rather than more conventional demographics.

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