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2011 Put Chrysler Back In The Fast Lane

Dec 28, 2011
Originally published on December 29, 2011 10:52 am

Despite a sluggish economy, it's been a good year overall for the auto industry. But among the Detroit Three, there's been a clear standout.

From marketing and advertising to car quality to sales, it has been a very good year for Chrysler — and that year began in January at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show. That's when Chrysler's French president, Olivier Francois, took the stage and reintroduced his struggling company to the world by quoting Detroit rapper Eminem's Oscar award-winning song "Lose Yourself," which had become a kind of anthem for Detroit.

Francois asked the crowd, "If you had one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip, yo?"

That "yo" sounds kind of funny spoken in a French accent. Francois was brought in to run Chrysler by its new European owner, Fiat, in 2009. Fiat came to Chrysler's rescue after the American company filed for bankruptcy and, despite some bumps along the way, the Italian car maker has helped Chrysler to focus on products and financial stability.

"What they've been able to achieve on not very much money and with not a tremendous amount of new product has been pretty phenomenal," says Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the automotive consumer website Edmunds.com. Krebs has been covering the car business since before Chrysler's first government bailout in the '80s.

"They didn't have a lot of the same advantage that General Motors did coming out of bankruptcy," she says of Chrysler's second bailout. "They didn't have all their debt wiped off, they didn't have product in the pipeline because they'd been pretty much starved of product under previous regimes."

Without the advantages enjoyed by other companies, Chrysler had to rebrand itself for the American consumer. It did that with a 2011 Super Bowl commercial that showed Eminem driving around his hometown. It was called "Imported From Detroit" and it helped change attitudes about Chrysler — and a few about Detroit as well.

Sales followed, going up 25 percent this year to about twice the industry average.

David Champion of Consumer Reports says not only is Chrysler selling more cars — they're also selling better cars.

"They've actually improved the Chrysler brand," Champion says, adding that Chrysler Group brands like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Dodge Durango and the Chrysler 200 all did well in Consumer Reports' reliability surveys.

After its bankruptcy, Chrysler repaid nearly $8 billion in bailout loans it got from the Canadian and U.S. governments. And then it began to turn a profit. This will likely be Chrysler's first fully profitable year since 2005.

Analyst Michelle Krebs says with the European debt crisis, it's now looking like Fiat and Chrysler will be reversing roles.

"Chrysler's right now supporting Fiat," she says, "because Fiat in Italy is floundering."

Krebs says the danger Chrysler faces is the same danger all car companies are facing — a slowing economy. But she and most other car analysts say that when Chrysler got its one shot, they took it. And while company is far from wining the fight, it's off the ropes for now.

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It's been a good year overall for the auto industry, despite a sluggish economy. And among the Big Three in Detroit, there's been a clear standout. From marketing and advertising, to car quality and even sales, this year's winner is Chrysler.

From Detroit, NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: 2011 for Chrysler began at the Detroit Auto Show last January. That's when Chrysler's President Olivier Francois, who's French, took the stage to reintroduce a struggling company to the world.

OLIVIER FRANCOIS: I remember leaving a booth with no new products, finding my 300 in the basement, and driving out into the cold, down (unintelligible) Avenue on my way to my new home, and even lost a little.

GLINTON: If I can sum up the feeling of the automotive press at the time, it wasn't just is Chrysler going to be OK, but is this guy going to make it through this?

FRANCOIS: Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip? Yo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: That yo sounds kind of funny coming in a French accent. Francois was brought in to run Chrysler by its new European owner, Fiat. Francois was quoting Detroit rapper Eminem and his Oscar winning song "Lose Yourself." The song had already been kind of an anthem for Detroit, and became one for Chrysler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSE YOURESELF")

EMINEM: (Singing) You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo. You better...

GLINTON: This wasn't Chrysler's once-in-a-lifetime. It's been like it's third or fourth. Chrysler was planning to increase sales and introduce new products, and it did just that.

MICHELLE KREBS: What they've been able to achieve, and not very much money and with not a tremendous amount of new product has been pretty been phenomenal.

GLINTON: Michelle Krebs is an analyst with Edmunds.com. She's been covering the car business since before the first government bailout of Chrysler in the '80s.

KREBS: Because they didn't have a lot of the same advantage that General Motors did coming out of bankruptcy. They didn't have all their debt wiped off. They didn't have of product in the pipeline, because they'd been pretty much starved of product by - under previous regimes.

GLINTON: So without the advantages of other companies, Chrysler had to rebrand itself for the American consumer, and Chrysler did it with one commercial during the Super Bowl.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because when it comes to luxury, it's as much about where it's from as who it's for. Now, where from America, but this isn't New York City or the Windy City or Sin City, and we're certainly no one's Emerald City.

GLINTON: Chrysler's imported-from-Detroit theme helped change some of the attitudes about Chrysler, and a few about Detroit. Sales followed. Sales have gone up 25 percent so far this year. That's about twice the industry average. And not only are they selling more cars, but according to Consumer Reports' David Champion, the company is selling better cars.

DAVID CHAMPION: In terms of Chrysler, they've actually improved the Chrysler brand now. And the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Dodge Durango and the Chrysler 200 all did well in our reliability survey, even in that first year.

GLINTON: Italy's Fiat came to the rescue of Chrysler. And despite some bumps, the Italian carmaker has helped Chrysler to focus on products and financial stability. Chrysler repaid nearly $8 billion in bailout loans it got from the Canadian and U.S. governments after it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and it began turn a profit. 2011 will likely be the first fully profitable year for Chrysler since 2005.

The analyst Michelle Krebs says now with the European debt crisis, Fiat and Chrysler are reversing roles.

KREBS: Chrysler is right now is supporting Fiat, because Fiat in Italy is floundering because the entire European market is softening and is expected to continue to struggle next year because of all of the debt crisis going on, and Italy's right in the middle of it.

GLINTON: Krebs says the danger for Chrysler is the danger for all car companies: a slowing economy. But Michelle Krebs and most other car analysts say Chrysler got its one shot and took it. The company is far from wining the fight. But for now, it's off the ropes.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.