The Chrysler Group has posted another spectacular monthly sales result, with March sales up by 34 percent over a year earlier. Americans are buying Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicles at a recent-record pace, and there appears to be no end in sight for the company's resurgence nearly three years after the U.S. government accepted its carcass and gave it to Fiat.
Yet there is one big cloud that remains for Chrysler amid all the silver linings: product quality. The company has made huge advances in spiffing up its vehicles as it has overhauled its product line over the last few years, especially in improving the materials and finish of amenities and components in its vehicle interiors. But there's much progress still to be made, which is why the company has invested $20 million over the last year to upgrade vehicle quality at the Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant where the new 2013 Dodge Dart soon will begin rolling off the line in volume.
"We are trying to drive a culture change," Jeff Betts, Chrysler's head of quality, told the Wall Street Journal. "Before we tried to downplay problems, because who wants them ending up in your lap. Now if you pont out a problem we shake your hand, say thank you and fix it."
One such problem is the news that the federal government is investigating complaints of engine fires in Chrysler's 2010 Jeep Wrangler. Betts said Chrysler has found "no abnormalities" in the vehicles, but the report is a reminder that Chrysler still has far to go in improving quality — despite all its recent gains under Betts —to catch up with nearly all of its competitors.
Chrysler made the second-biggest gain in quality among any automaker in Consumer Reports' recently released annual report card of the auto industry. But even after that spectacular achievement, Chrysler remained in last place. And the company's four brands finished in the last four spots in J.D. Power's important vehicle-dependability index this year.
Yet Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne is convinced that Dart, which is based on an Alfa Romeo vehicle sold by Fiat, will represent a new product pinnacle for Dodge."It has just enough [Italian flair] to make it interesting and avoids all the pitfalls of being Italian," he told 60 Minutes recently. And "mechanically, it's outstanding."
Driving the charge for Chrysler's March sales, by the way? The "Imported from Detroit"-touted Chrysler 200, as the automaker noted in a blog post:
For March, the Chrysler 200 was our #2 top seller with 14,914 sold — pretty good for a 121% increase over March 2011. That was easily the best-selling month in the 200's relatively short life. While we don't officially give out specific retail sales numbers, we can say that March retail sales for the 200 topped the best the Chrysler Sebring ever did by more than 2,000 cars.
Interestingly, the Chrysler 200 commercials released in March (at top and below) were titled "Character," "Doesn't Complain," and "Rise From the Ashes."