300C gets Chrysler busy The success of the 300C sedan, the 5.7-liter Hemi engine and high expectations for the Dodge Magnum launching this week and the resurrected Dodge Charger due out next year has Chrysler mulling production hikes to meet demand. "Demand for both the 300C and the Hemi has been beyond our wildest dreams," says Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche. Hemi production began in June 2002 at the Saltillo plant in Mexico, with a projected production of 440,000 engines a year. Only about a quarter of those engines were planned to be used in heavy-duty pickups, with the rest expected to end up in large cars like the 300C and Dodge Magnum, Grand Cherokees, Dakotas, Durangos, and light-duty pickups. Zetsche said production has already been increased through the breaking of some bottlenecks, and that the company is putting plans in place to add some production through extra shifts and other means. "We are much more flexible in Mexico with regard to what we can do versus our U.S. plants," says Zetsche, who stopped short of saying an additional production line would be added. At the Brampton, Ontario, plant, which produces the 300C and Dodge Magnum, production of the 300C recently was slowed so that an adequate supply of the Dodge Magnum could get out to dealers. Already, though, Zetsche is talking about changes to the traditional two-week summer shutdown to cope with demand. "We are talking with the union to see what is possible," said Zetsche. Asked if he is surprised by the early interest in the 300C, Zetsche said, "I wouldn't recommend planning for this kind of success." Through May, the Chrysler sold 23,000 300 vehicles after it arrived in showrooms in March. That compares with 17,000 Concordes sold in the first five months of last year. "It shows what happens when you focus on a total package, inside and outside and deliver styling that hits emotions," said the CEO. Says marketing consultant Dennis Keene, "Full-size sedans was a dead market, and Chrysler is pumping new life and energy into it - it's like finding gold in a mine you thought had been tapped out." That success should be enough to get Chrysler to lay off rebates, but a $1000 rebate remains for buyers who finance through Chrysler Credit. "As successful as the 300C is, buyers in this segment are addicted to rebates and the dealers tell us we have to have one to stay competitive," says Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines. Does Zetsche have equally high hopes for the Dodge Magnum? "People told us when we started out with the Magnum that station wagons are dead, and I said, I don't give a shit, whatever it is we will double it by delivering a functional car people want," Zetsche said. Some Chrysler insiders, though, are more cautious in projecting as much success for the Magnum as is being enjoyed by the 300C. To hedge bets, Chrysler will add the Dodge Charger to production next year in case interest in the Magnum cools or underperforms expectations. Then it can easily dial production up and down among the three models to cope with demand. -Jim Burt ------ Chrysler 300C: The Next Bling Thing? Buzz, buzz -- cha-ching, cha-ching In the season finale of NBC's ER, young, brash but caring Dr. Pratt boasted over his new 300C with the 5.7-liter Hemi. Unfortunately, at the close of the show, Pratt was speeding away from a road-rage nut who was firing bullets at his shiny new wheels. The 300C is providing something Chrysler hasn't seen since the PT Cruiser got off to a flaming red-hot start: enthusiasm for the Chrysler brand. Sales of the 300 were almost 10,000 in April and picking up in May, so much so that one wonders why there any incentives on the car. Current incentives are limited to $1000 to current Chrysler owners, plus another $1000 for buyers who finance with Chrysler Credit. The 300 is hotter than even Chrysler believed it would or it wouldn't have launched with incentives. And it's a sedan. A sedan! The 300 is off to a better start than the Pacifica crossover launched last year, and crossovers are supposed to be the hot segment, right? On top of that, 40 percent of the customers are taking the HEMI-powered 300C and opting for lots of the bells and whistles. Eighty-percent are taking a sunroof. That's big profit at a time when Chrysler is desperate for profits. Things gone right What did Chrysler do right with the 300? "It's the right balance of attitude and class," says marketing and design consultant Dennis Keene. "It has a good deal of refinement. People in the know appreciate the connection to Mercedes-Benz, and it makes a statement without being retro like the PT Cruiser or obnoxious like the Hummer. And it's not boring like a Buick or a Lexus. It's really well turned out." The 300 and Magnum just hitting showrooms use a Mercedes transmission, axles and other bits and pieces. Not that much, but enough to give those considering a Chrysler a taste of Stuttgart schnitzel. Chrysler product development chief Eric Ridenour agrees Chrysler may have hit the sweet spot with love-hate marketing. "The front grille is definitely love-hate," says Ridenour. "But it's also the higher beltline, the interior and the value….Not everybody likes it or wants it, and that's good…We never want to make milquetoast. You can't make milquetoast unless your brand is strong enough to sell milquetoast," says Ridenour. Chrysler executives are heartened by some of the early trade-in numbers on 300. There are many more Cadillac and Lincoln buyers trading in for a 300 than ever traded over to the Concorde or LHS, and dealers are even getting Lexus trades. It's early days, but Chrysler can use all the positive word of mouth it can get. Chrysler brand sales were up 17 percent through April. The Pacifica is averaging 6500 vehicles per month, though. The Crossfire, another disappointment, is now averaging 1100 per month, below the 20,000 annual rate Chrysler officials say privately they planned for. PT Cruiser sales are up six percent this year on high incentives and the launch of the convertible. Total Chrysler sales were off 3.5 percent last year at 463,000. In all 300M and Concorde sales combined for 53,000. The bling thing But the 300C is on the radar - and has become the bling of the moment for the younger, hipper crowd so cravenly sought by Detroit 's automakers, as well as older customers ready for something that looks and acts American, despite its German roots. Roberta Flanagan, 48, an investment counselor in South Orange, N.J. is taking a hard look at the 300C as her leased Cadillac STS is nearing its end. "I test-drove one and I liked it. I thought it was a better looking car than the Cadillacs, and it's a better deal." Flanagan admits she falls into the love-hate category for the toothy grille on the 300C. "But it reminds me of a buttoned-up lawyer I used to date who had a little wild side once in a while." The 300C stickers at $32,995, though the base model starts at $23,595. Chrysler helped itself by mixing low-end cars with high-end HEMIs at dealerships at launch. "That showed people that you really could get a $24,000 300. With the Pacifica , we put all the highest end cars out there first and the media all wrote it was overpriced." Helping the 300C along on the public relations and goodwill front is its displacement-on-demand Hemi engine, which gets 17/25 miles per gallon, according to government tests. A Cadillac DeVille V-8 is rated at 18/26 and a Ford Crown Victoria eight-cylinder is rated at 17/25. The Chrysler, though has the 5.7-liter HEMI engine while the Crown Vic and DeVille have a 4.6-liter engines. What will be interesting to see with the 300C is how the "buyergraphic" shakes out. The 300C is already hitting chords in the hip-hop crowd, not unlike the Cadillac Escalade. Has that hurt the Escalade? Escalade is selling 4300 per month among the three versions: Escalade, Escalade ESV and Escalade EXT. Lincoln's Navigator, also a popular hip-hopmobile, sold just over 10,000 through April. Chrysler 300 designer Ralph Gilles says with pride, "We are amazed that young, affluent males like the car a lot. Also the rap community. It has been in a rap video." Rock on. Another consideration for the brand is how the limousine fleet business will embrace the 300. The fastest way for a new model to go from bling-bling to clank-clank is for airport limo drivers to start picking up their fares in one. See Lincoln Town Car and Continental. Another questionable market for Chrysler is the police car market. With some police forces souring on the way Ford has treated the Crown Victoria controversy related to the gas-tank placement and police officer deaths, there has been interest among police car fleet buyers in the rear-drive 300C. Mopar has a storied history in the police car market going back to the 1960s, and a lot of cops would like to see a 300C with a flashing red light on top if the car's body is as durable as the body-on-frame Crown Vic when it comes to going over suburban curbs. But will cops be able to convince their superiors it's just a tool - and not a hot way to cruise the streets?