It has been a long, uphill grind. But next month, Chrysler Corp.'s new, make-or-break LH line of family sedans will start rolling off a Bramalea (Ont.) assembly line. The cars are already getting rave reviews for their comfort, ride, and handling. Even Charles M. Jordan, chief designer at General Motors Corp. and hardly a Chrysler booster, ranks the new models' designs as among the best in the world.
The big question now: Will anybody buy the darn things, no matter how good they are? The new cars, which will sell under the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, and Chrysler Concorde names, are targeted at the brutally competitive midsize family-sedan market. Their rivals include the threetop-selling U.S. cars so far this year: Honda's Accord, Ford's restyled Taurus, and Toyota's new Camry. Chrysler, with its reputation for stodgy styling and poor quality, faces a tough sell.
Chrysler executives don't minimize the challenge. "We realize there are a lot of shopping lists we aren't on," concedes Steven Torok, general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth Div. But the company figures if it can just persuade skeptical shoppers to try the cars, they'll start selling. So it has come up with an imaginative marketing campaign to lure buyers more demanding than its traditionally older, largely blue-collar clientele. Eventually, Chrysler hopes 50% of the cars will be bought by owners of Japanese imports.
CAREFUL AIM. Chrysler has been on a long slide in the car market. Young shoppers fled to other brands as its lineup aged. Its market share since 1988 has plunged by 3.3 points, to 7.9%--behind Honda and Toyota. During last year's slump, it was mainly Jeeps and minivans that kept the company afloat.
With such a bad rep to overcome, Chrysler has aimed each of its models carefully at a particular audience. Starting at $16,000, the Intrepid is a basic family sedan with less standard equipment than the others. The Vision, at a base of $17,000, is sportier, with a better-handling suspension. Both cost more than an Accord, which starts at $14,250 but has only a four-cylinder engine. Given their spaciousness, however, the new cars compete well with a comparable Taurus or Camry, which start at $15,000 and $17,300, respectively.
Chrysler hasn't neglected the top of the line, either. The Concorde, which starts at about $18,000, has a more luxurious interior and such nifty features as standard antilock brakes. It aims to be a less expensive alternative to low-end luxury cars such as Toyota Motor Co.'s Lexus ES 300, which goes for $27,500. Next year, a longer and even more luxurious New Yorker based on the LH design is due.
As for advertising, Chrysler is waiting until August--just before the new models hit the showrooms in large numbers--to announce whether Chairman Lee A. Iacocca will again be featured. But marketers are already tailoring the ad mix to each audience. For instance, they figure potential Vision customers, like import car buyers, read more than average consumers--so more than 35% of the Vision's budget will go for print ads. By contrast, more of Concorde's budget will go into cable TV--which reaches more high-end buyers.
Meanwhile, Chrysler hopes to foster favorable word of mouth among potential buyers. In mid-October, the company will offer to lend new cars for a few days to up to 10,000 engineers, accountants, and other professionals whose opinions, Chrysler believes, carry weight with car shoppers.
LOCAL SNOOPS. Chrysler will also try to spiff up its dealers' seedy image. Beginning this summer, it will spend $35 million teaching new soft-sell sales tactics and pampering ways to 115,000 employees of the company's 5,000 dealerships. Chrysler's corporate staff will monitor dealer performance through surveys and visits by undercover "shoppers."
On top of all that, there will be new twists on old strategies, such as direct mail. For instance, Chrysler will send test-drive invitations--and, in some cases, promotional videos--to import owners and to the 2 million owners of its minivans, who fit the new sedans' demographic profile. That's shrewd: Many baby boomers have a second car, and as their kids grow up, they often trade in vans for traditional wheels.
Chrysler's timing looks good. The U.S. car market is finally picking up, and some Japanese rivals are under financial pressure. The company is also striving to ensure that the new cars' quality is top-notch. For instance, it started working bugs out of prototypes 95 weeks before production was scheduled to begin, vs. the usual 65 weeks. Given the traffic jam of tough rivals in the market, Chrysler knows it must get everything right. And even then, its comeback in cars is far from a cinch.
THE LH SALES STRATEGY -- Pour $35 million into teaching 115,000 employees better selling and people skills -- Pay bonuses of up to $500 a car to dealers with high customer-satisfaction ratings -- Generate positive word-of-mouth by getting up to 10,000 opinion leaders to try out the cars for several days -- Display cars in museums, concert halls, and hotel lobbies, where upscale prospective buyers will see them -- Mail test-drive invitations to 4 million to 5 million prospects, in some cases with a promotional video -- Get more from ads by doing less on network TV and more on cable and such unconventional media as on-line computer services DATA: CHRYSLER CORP.