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Chrysler's new-model delays becoming a problem

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Chrysler's inability to get new vehicles into production and on sale is becoming a concern. The auto market is experiencing a historic sales recovery, but Chrysler showrooms contain too many warmed-over versions of old vehicles while competitors pack their dealerships with all-new models.

“Everyone else is launching numerous new vehicles,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Edmunds.com.

Where's the flood of fuel-efficient new cars and crossovers that made Chrysler's alliance with Fiat look so promising? Four years into the companies' cooperation, as Fiat says it wants 100 percent ownership of Chrysler, it's a two-vehicle trickle. The 2013 Dodge Dart compact sedan got off to a slow start thanks to a partial model line. A string of delays have plagued the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. It was supposed to be shipped to dealers between July 1 and Sept. 30, but those shipments didn't start until this week.

Despite that, Chrysler has logged 42 consecutive months of sales growth, thanks to a few new vehicles and well-executed upgrades to others.

“Chrysler has come a long way” since it nearly collapsed during the Great Recession, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst with KBB.com. “How much better could it have done if the launches had gone right? This is really limiting Chrysler's success.”

Make no mistake: Chrysler would not exist today without its partnership with Fiat. The two automakers have done an exceptional job improving Chrysler's existing models, breathing life into the leftovers Daimler and Cerberus discarded. The all-new, all-Chrysler vehicles that have debuted in the past three years — Chrysler 300; Dodge Charger, Durango and Viper; Jeep Grand Cherokee; and Ram pickups — have mostly been excellent.

That's not enough, though. None of those vehicles addresses the heart of the market: the millions of people who buy family sedans and crossovers.

“Every delay becomes more obvious and critical,” Krebs said.

Four years into the five-year Chrysler-Fiat recovery plan announced in November 2009, most of the promised new models based on Fiat architectures have been delayed or canceled, including replacements for the 200 and Avenger midsize sedans, new compact and subcompact Jeeps, a midsize crossover from Chrysler and a Dodge subcompact car.

Chrysler remains overly dependent on pickups, minivans, SUVs and big sedans, just as it was before Fiat's driven and charismatic chief Sergio Marchionne took charge.

Chrysler achieved a lot in the first two years of Marchionne's leadership. The design and engineering teams breathed new life into weak vehicles such as the Chrysler Sebring/200 and Dodge Journey. The marketing group created brilliant ads that inspired employees and persuaded customers to take another look at Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.

But progress has ground nearly to a halt since work turned to developing new models that tap into Fiat's expertise with small, fuel-efficient vehicles.

That makes flawless quality even more important when the 2014 Cherokee goes on sale.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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