One hallmark of the contemporary blogger is his willingness to give advice, unbidden and usually unwanted, to just about anyone. In two previous installments of this column, back in the spring, I offered some suggestions to General Motors and to Ford; I held off on a Chrysler edition because, frankly, I wasn't sure what was going down in Auburn Hills. Now that we know — the equity firm Cerberus has taken Chrysler off Daimler-Benz's hands and returned it to American ownership, at least for the moment, and former General Electric and Home Depot executive Robert Nardelli has been installed as CEO — I figure it's time to take a look at the land of the once and future Pentastar.

The Daimler divorce is final, but it's not all-inclusive: Cerberus holds 80.1 percent of the new Chrysler LLC, but Daimler retains the balance. And there exists some concern among industry watchers that Bob Nardelli, frog-marched out of Home Depot earlier this year, simply isn't a "car guy." Then again, neither is GM's Rick Wagoner, and Alan Mulally at Ford is primarily an aircraft guy, what with three decades at Boeing under his belt. Perhaps more to the point, car guys seldom get to the top in Detroit: the last one worthy of the name, perhaps, was Alexander Trotman, who headed up Ford in the middle 1990s, and who isn't available as an adviser, having died in 2005.

The kind of guy Nardelli is, as it happens, is a Six Sigma guy: Nardelli, who learned the system at the feet of General Electric CEO Jack Welch. It worked wonders for GE, and Nardelli assumed it would work wonders for Home Depot. It did not. Then again, Chrysler is more like GE than it is like Home Depot: it's primarily a manufacturing, not a retail, operation, so there's at least a chance that he might be able to make it work. In a million opportunities, Six Sigma allows you only 3.4 defects, and if there's anything that upsets American automobile buyers, it's defects: Toyota's lofty reputation is based, not upon its vehicles themselves, which (the Prius perhaps excepted) are seldom state of the art, but the fact that those vehicles don't break very often.

And Chrysler, over the years, has been inconsistent in delivering vehicle quality. The little PT Cruisers generally have placed well in the Consumer Reports reliability survey, but the bigger cars (and trucks) have a spotty record. Chrysler has a reputation for questionable automatic transmissions, much of which is undeserved, but which still shows up on the survey. The 2.7-liter V6 reportedly has exhibited the sort of problem with engine sludge that bedeviled some Toyota engines.

Beyond improving vehicle quality, which all automakers ought to be doing as a matter of course, what can Chrysler do to get out of its current sales slump? A few ideas:

  • Shorten the development cycle. The PT is now going into its eighth year. This is not by any means the longest tenure in Detroit — Ford has sold the same Focus in the States for nine years, and Chevy managed only three generations of Cavalier in twenty-three years — but the PT, while it's treated as simply the entry-level Chrysler, is as much a "halo car" as the 300 and deserves the same level of attention.

  • Get rid of the non-convertible Sebrings. With a fixed roof, the Sebring is just another rental car; with a ragtop (or a retractable hardtop), it's a fair amount of fun. Let Dodge sell the sedan version.

  • Enough with the Jeep variations. The new Wrangler Unlimited is a hit, the Liberty stands in well enough for the old Cherokee, and the present-day Grand Cherokee is nearly Wagoneer-plush; I can appreciate wanting to expand the brand, but you can't slap a vertical grille on a Dodge and make a Jeep out of it. The Compass must die, and the Patriot might as well go with it.

I add one personal note: I have never owned a Chrysler product. Just once before I go, I'd like to have a good reason to buy one.

The Vent

#549
  16 September 2007



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