What works at Ford and Chevrolet doesn't work at Chrysler when it comes to trucks. No, it's not quality control, which Chrysler has been greatly improving (more on that later). It's that Chrysler can't sell cars and trucks that bear the same brand name of Dodge.
At least that's the message Fred Diaz, president and CEO of Ram Trucks, conveyed during a recent interview at the Chicago Auto Show. Consumers couldn't differentiate between Dodge cars and trucks, so the Ram truck brand was born.
"We were trying to be too much to too many people with Dodge trucks and cars," said Diaz, who also is the lead Chrysler Group executive for sales in the United States. So, the company created distinct personalities for the two brands.
The Dodge car brand is young, hip, and athletic, he said. The Ram brand is defined by its spokesman, Sam Elliott, the gritty voiced actor known for roles in movies like "Tombstone."
"You can't market both brands the same way," he said.
Something else Chrysler couldn't do for a long time was get a grip on quality issues. Diaz has been with Chrysler for a long time. He started out as a trainee in Dallas in 1989 and worked his way through various sales, marketing, and communications roles before getting his current post in October 2009.
"Quality has always been a long-time Achilles heel and we've got it solved," Diaz said, with some enthusiasm. "In short order you will see that tide turn toward quality."
No less an institution than the venerable Consumer Reports agrees with Diaz's assessment. It cites the 2010 Dodge Ram 1500 as a recommended vehicle - but even that comes with a caveat. The two-wheel-drive model is expected to have above-average reliability; the four-wheel-drive model is rated at below-average reliability.
Diaz said a major improvement in quality control was taking responsibility for it away from the engineering department. He credited the hiring of Douglas D. Betts, a senior vice president of quality, as a major factor in quality improvement along with Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler Group. "Sergio challenges us daily on the quality of vehicles," Diaz said. "We will never, ever ship a vehicle that has a defect to a customer."
One thing Ram has been doing is shipping more vehicles overall, especially to New England where market share has grown about seven points (and nationally about five points). "New England has a bigger truck [market] than anybody realizes," he said. "That part of the world is seen as a sophisticated, well-educated market ... also a lot of workers that build the buildings that people do their work in."
It's those builders that Ram is fighting hardest for with its latest Ram 1500 trim level called the Tradesmen, which is being sold as "the most capable entry-level work truck in the segment." Diaz is highlighting its power (390 horsepower and 407 lb.-ft. of torque from a 5.7-liter Hemi), fuel efficiency (rated 20 mpg on the highway) and best-in-class towing at 10,400 lbs. The Tradesmen also comes with unique 17-inch, painted steel wheels and a starting price of $22,780.
The V-8 engine is the key to bringing in new customers, Diaz said, because it is a segment where the base engine is typically a V-6. "The resale volume of a V-8 to a V-6 is second to none," he said.
The Ram still finishes a distant third in the pickup truck race. Ford continued to be the top seller with total F-Series sales of 528,439 in 2010 with GM just behind with 520,444 combined sales of the Chevrolet Avalanche, Chevrolet Silverado, and GMC Sierra full-size pickups. Ram sales (at 199,652) are just 37 percent of its domestic competitors. It just nosed out Toyota by 145 trucks. Nissan was a distant fifth with combined pickup sales of 63,843.
The association with Marchionne and Fiat will help Ram fill a gap in its commercial van lineup since the divorce with Daimler. Ram no longer has the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter to sell. In the near future it will import small rebadged Fiat trucks to compete with the likes of the Ford Transit Connect, a high-top European van that is gaining popularity in the US.
Ram is getting aggressive in its pursuit of customers. Through the end of February, it is offering customers purchasing a 2011 Ram pickup truck the choice of a Hemi engine at no charge or "Engine Bonus Cash" that is available on most 2011 Ram models equipped with V-6, V-8, or Cummins diesel engines.
About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee