Fleet News

Fleet spotlight: Under–priced and over here – Dodge to hit UK

COMPARED with Ford and Vauxhall, Dodge will rank as a small player when it arrives on the UK market next year. But the firm believes stand-out styling and aggressive pricing could make the brand a big hit with company car buyers.

Even though they will have unique features and boast superior equipment levels, the latest US export models are likely to cost up to 15% less than their immediate forecourt rivals, Fleet NewsNet can reveal.

Global sales chief and executive vice-president Joe Eberhardt said: ‘We’ll be the new kids on the block, so our product range will need to be pitched lower than the relevant competition – that has to be an important element of our sales strategy.

‘We have still to work on the details for the launch, but I’d say we will have to be operating at price levels between 5% and 15% lower.’

He was speaking as plans for the introduction were confirmed at a special event in London.

Buoyed by its first year of profitable trading since 1996, Chrysler Group International Operations is putting the finishing touches to a fresh range of vehicles to drive its raunchy Dodge brand –America’s fifth best-selling nameplate – into the fiercely-competitive European business car market.

Much of the company’s hopes are pinned on Caliber, the production-ready concept set to challenge C-segment front-runners including the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus. Styled by Trevor Creed, the group’s Wolverhampton-born design chief, it appears both sporty and tough and is aimed at giving a fresh perspective to the compact car.

Among specification details still to be decided are power units. Eberhardt said: ‘As diesel is one of the main requirements of the fleet sector, a lot of attention is being paid to this area of the car. We’re still shopping – we need a smaller power unit than the 2.8-litre motor used in the Jeep and we have been looking at a 2.0-litre unit from Volkswagen.’

To follow the Caliber and due to be rolled out during 2007 will be a four-door saloon to tackle cars including the Mazda6 and Toyota Avensis. Co-developed with Mitsubishi, it shares the Caliber’s platform and will adopt many of the styling cues from the new Charger model just launched at the Detroit Motor Show.

Likely at the same time will be another D-segment offering appearing much like Nitro, the mid-size sport utility concept just launched at the Chicago Motor Show and another Dodge honed to attract showroom attention with rugged looks and a dominant stance.

Oddly enough, the Nitro appears even more production-ready than the Caliber and has a satin silver centre console complete with satellite navigation and a seven-inch LED screen. With the rear hatch open, the cargo floor slides rearward for easier loading.

The concept has full-time all-wheel drive, a 3.7-litre V6 petrol motor and five-speed automatic transmission.

Chrysler Group is clearly hoping the Dodge line-up will achieve better results in Europe than it managed with the Neon, the low-cost family sedan that was Detroit’s answer to compact cars from Japan.

After wearing both Plymouth and Dodge badges in the domestic market, it went on sale here in 1996 under the Chrysler banner, but by the time it was withdrawn last year, total sales in the UK – its most popular EU market – added up to just 13,000 units.

A Chrysler UK spokesman said: ‘One of the biggest weaknesses of the Neon was that it never had a diesel engine and that will not be the case in future.

‘We’re aiming to double the number of diesel models we sell by 2007 across all three brands.’

With its Chrysler and Jeep brands performing generally well in other international markets, why is the group eyeing Europe for the expansion of Dodge?

Senior vice-president George Murphy said: ‘The answer is simple: from blue jeans to wrap labels, from Coke to Harley Davidson, all-American brands have a strong cache all around the world. We believe Dodge can be one of them.

‘This brand is all about attitude. It’s bold, confident and assertive and with a reputation for performance and good value, it fits the profile of American brands that work well in Europe and other world markets.

‘We’re now building cars that are in line with the core values of all our brands. Of the 2.2 million Chrysler Group cars that were sold in the US last year, 1.1 million had Dodge badges. We’re committed to transformation.

‘We redefined Chrysler in 2004, Jeep is being expanded and we want to take Dodge global in 2006.’

He added: ‘Research findings suggest a significant number of buyers are interested in bold and expressive cars and he expects Dodge to represent more than 25% of international sales and half our volume in Europe.

Speaking from Stuttgart by satellite link, Chrysler president and chief executive officer Dieter Zetsche said six consecutive quarters of profitable trading had given the company a solid base to roll out Dodge internationally.

He added: ‘There are plenty of reasons Dodge is our best-selling brand. It is a unique proposition with potential to exceed expectations.

‘It is different, stands out in the marketplace and appeals to different buyers than our Chrysler or Jeep brands. That’s where the opportunity lies and we are committed to doing it right.’

Family vehicle design vice- president Dave McKinney added: ‘In America, our cars are associated with rock and roll, good times and a need for speed.

‘Dodge owners are people who work hard, play hard and don’t apologise for having fun. This is not a brand for those with conservative tastes or who are simply stuffy and pretentious.

‘If you don’t want to be noticed, you probably don’t want to drive a Dodge. But if the only thing standing between you and the car of your dreams is a big bankroll, it is probably the brand for you because value is our core attribute.’

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