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The Dude
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Cars That Wrecked Chrysler

Chrysler was king of the hill with its 300 series just a few years ago. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Now the company is going bankrupt after a string of uninspired products destroyed its reputation.

2004 - Chrysler 300C


Chrysler's 1998 merger with Daimler-Benz bore promising fruit with the 2004 rebirth of the Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C.

With a dose of German engineering, Chrysler had seemingly rediscovered its founder's vision. Walter P. Chrysler had wanted his car company to offer investor class quality at working-man prices. With its Mercedes-based suspension and all-American Hemi engine under its boxy hood, the 300C performed with a power and alacrity that belied its relatively low cost.


In hindsight, the Dodge Magnum, introduced at the same time, should have provided a warning of bad things to come. The thuggish wagon was a big hit at first and it was, in most respects, every bit as good as the 300C.

But the interior lacked the 300C's stylishness. In fact, it lacked any apparent design at all. And the materials were rock hard and cheap feeling.

Chrysler LLC learned something with these two cars: Design sells. But what began as a selling point became, for Chrysler, a rickety crutch.

Under its new owners, Chrysler seems to be learning its lesson at last. But several models Chrysler has introduced over the last handful of years have eroded Americas trust and driven the company to bankruptcy.


2006 - Dodge Caliber

As with the 300C, the looks were promising. The Dodge Caliber compact car brought the chest-thumping attitude of the big Ram truck into a small package. The boxy hood and gape-mouthed grill, not to mention the name, spoke of explosive power.

But this little car was more a popgun than a .357. Far from thrilling, acceleration was barely even adequate and the steering felt hollow and numb.

Like the Magnum, the interior was cheap and looked like it could be disassembled with a butter knife.

The Caliber did have a few clever features, the sort of novelties that Chrysler started putting into its cars to give them something besides "the look" to set them apart. In this case, there were stereo speakers that hung down from the open tailgate and an iPod holder that folded out from the center console.

With flash and cleverness papering over a fundamentally weak product, the Caliber seems to have been a guide to a disastrous new product strategy at DaimlerChrysler's Michigan outpost.


2006 - Jeep Commander

Once again stretching to make more with less, Chrysler designers and engineers managed to pile a big SUV into the skeleton of a much smaller Jeep Grand Cherokee.

While the distance between the front and rear wheels remained the same as on the Grand Cherokee, the Commander had an extra row of seats, four cubic feet more passenger volume and a cubic foot more cargo space.

This exercise in maximizing gave the Commander awkward proportions. The tall SUV also teetered through turns and wallowed over bumps, feeling like small boy struggling to carry a big package.

To add to its problems, the Commander also arrived on the market just as consumers were turning away from giant SUVs.

Add poor timing to its list of problems.


2007 - Dodge Nitro

Crossover SUVs had become a hot item, stealing sales away from bigger SUVs. With the Nitro, Chrysler squeezed its way into that market without waiting for true a crossover SUV.

The Nitro is a Jeep Liberty stripped of its "Rubicon Trail" capabilities. There is no "four-wheel-drive lock" setting, for instance. But what couldn't be stripped out was the Jeep's harsh, bouncy ride and anemic street performance.

Like other Dodge's and Jeeps of this generation, the Nitro also has a hard-edged, chintzy interior no different from the Liberty's except for Dodge's ram's-head logo.

Even a short test drive would reveal that, no matter what it might look like, the Nitro doesn't offer what customers really want in a crossover SUV: the ride and handling of a car in a roomier package.

Chrysler did come out with the Journey, a larger true crossover vehicle, last year. It's not the best on the market, but at least it's honest.


2007 - Chrysler Sebring

It's been a long time since two American automakers have, at the same time, offered mid-sized sedans capable of taking on the Japanese. Unfortunately, Chrysler wasn't able to make it three.

The Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu, with their sophisticated six-speed transmissions, smart looks and smooth, sophisticated road feel, put the lie to notion that Detroit can't make cars Americans want.

Chrysler's new, redesigned Sebring, meanwhile, sounded and felt harsh and unpleasant compared to its Asian and domestic competitors. The suspension felt weak in the knees and wallowing.

The Sebring certainly would have been competitive a decade or so earlier. If only Chrysler dealers weren't saddled with having to sell it today.

An available heated and cooled cupholder, another Chrysler attempt to score points with novelty, just wasn't enough to make up for all the Sebring lacked.


2009 - Dodge Ram

There's more than a glimmer of hope to be seen in the 2009 Dodge Ram truck. As always, there is an eye-catching exterior and there are tricky add-ons, like the Rambox storage bins worked into the bed walls.

But there's real depth here, too. Innovative coil springs provide a more car-like road feel and the interior is richly detailed.

There are positive signs in other recent product introductions, too. The Dodge Challenger muscle car has an interior that, while bland, is at least well built. And the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a future product only recently unveiled, looks elegant inside and out.

This new crop of Chrysler vehicles marks a change in attitude about providing the best product possible for its customers.

So far, we've seen this attitude in a truck, an SUV and muscle car. To survive, Chrysler needs competitive small and midsized cars. To thrive, they'll need to be more than competitive to make up for Chrysler's past sins.

For this, the plan is to get help from Fiat. The Italian automaker seems to have the needed expertise, but we'll have to see how it translates to the American market.
 

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The Jeep brand bastardization is what has really hurt Chrysler. Chrysler has some of the worst interiors by far. I do like the Challenger and Charger though.
 

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