Chrysler Rethinks Styling Plans

by : Mike Bartley

A top Chrysler Group executive said that the company seriously misjudged the market in developing the panned Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Nitro last year, and is swiftly moving to improve current and future vehicles.

Responding to queries from employees on the automaker's internal Internet system, Bob Lee, the head of powertrain engineering, acknowledged that many people at Chrysler are "outraged" over the issues with the Sebring sedan and Nitro SUV, according to a copy of the Q&A. Both vehicles received vastly critical evaluations from Consumer Reports, an influential car purchasing Web site. The new Sebring was rated 16th out of 16 family sedans recently by Consumer Reports.

Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda and Chief Operating Officer Eric Ridenour are "quite upset" and agree the company "missed where the market was to end up versus our projections," Lee wrote. "As a result of these embarrassing 'misses,' there are extremely aggressive actions being taken on many of the existing products, and also the yet to be introduced products to get us at least to the middle of the competitive pack in very short order."

Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau confirmed the authenticity of the employee Q&A posted in the past week. He said that it was meant to be seen by a relatively small group of employees. While Lee, in a recent frank internal question-and-answer session with employees, said that the issues surrounding the Sebring and Nitro, two of ten products Chrysler launched last year, have sparked a series of deep dives into its processes and standards, the automaker had already started revamping its product development system.

Frank Klegon, Chrysler's product development chief, outlined Thursday several actions being taken that should improve existing cars and trucks and new models that will be launched in the next couple of years. "We're certainly not satisfied with where we are," Klegon said. "We have to get better."

The automaker began working with ASI Consulting Group in Livonia about 18 months ago. The firm has helped Chrysler use the "Design for Six Sigma" system. This is to aid engineers better determine upfront what features and qualities purchasers want in new vehicles. The firm was hired to help "make a cultural change to move that needle to be proactive," Klegon said. "We're taking this on as an extreme change in the way we do predictive quality from the standpoint of customers."

As an example of Chrysler's proactive approach in responding to vehicle problems, Klegon mentioned noise, vibration and harshness complaints about the 2.4-liter world engine, built in Dundee. The company found the problem existed only when the engine was cold. Once warmed up, performance matches the Toyota Camry, he said.

At present, Chrysler is swiftly taking action like the to remedy the problems. "Our management has admitted that some of our competitors moved faster in some areas than we had anticipated and hence although we matched their previous position and added some improvements, we didn't set targets aggressive enough," Lee wrote. "One example is interior appointments." Interiors are particularly important because they are so linked to a consumer's vehicle experience. "I don't know that the typical person is walking into a Dodge or Chrysler showroom, and saying that the interiors are horrible," said Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book.

The Sebring and the Nitro are among several vehicles the automaker is working to enhance. "We're not treating this any different than a thing that would break that you have to fix," Klegon said. "You have to fix an issue that's in the customer's hands either by design change or process improvements or other things."