Simply put, the first-generation Chrysler 200 was a bad car. A mildly refreshed Chrysler Sebring, the 200 was a band-aid for the newly-merged Fiat Chrysler Automobiles until a newer, more competitive lineup could be fielded. The last-generation Sebring debuted in 2006, and under the 200 moniker, it soldiered on for a total of eight model years – an eternity in the automotive world. So when the all-new 200 debuted for 2015, maybe the bar was set a little too low.
When it was released, Brandon Faurote, Head of Chrysler Brand Design said, “The 2015 Chrysler 200 is the debut of the new face of Chrysler which is confidently American.” It hit the market amid a flurry of advertising, and put Chrysler in a lot better shape in the competitive midsize sedan segment than it had been the year before. Its styling was tasteful and distinctive, and its blend of comfort and value earned it high marks from U.S. News & World Report and Kelley Blue Book. Chrysler even saw a 60,000 car sales spike over the old model.
But for gearheads, the new 200 was tepid at best. In a segment with the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and Mazda6, the 200 barely registers on the radar. During its first test of the car, Car and Driver concluded: “In a segment flush with blue-ribbon entries that manage to mix four-door practicality with genuine fun-to-drive character, the 200 is still a few ingredients short of being top-shelf material.”
So in an industry where everyone from the shop mechanic to the CEO is supposed to cheerlead for their products, it came as a shock that after just a year on the market, FCA chief Sergio Marchionne has publicly declared defeat with the Chrysler 200.
Speaking with Automotive News on Monday, Marchionne addressed a universal criticism with the car. From Automotive News:
“The 200 failed because somebody thought that the rear-seat entry point inside the 200 — which is our fault, by the way — is not up to snuff,” Marchionne said.
The problem: The slope of the roof crimps the entry portal.
Then the boss explained what went wrong. “The Hyundai which we copied [presumably the Sonata] has the same problem,” Marchionne admitted. “We didn’t copy the car, we copied the entry point to the rear seat. Dummies. I acknowledge it. Some people from design left some of their private parts on the table after we came up with that determination. But I think we’re learning from this process.”
While Marchionne’s candor is refreshing, we doubt FCA dealers are happy to be stuck selling a car for at least the next three years that’s been publicly labeled a failure by the boss.
What’s more, the 200’s failure – its low roof line – can’t just be fixed like Honda’s emergency Civic redesign of 2013. Fixing the roof would entail a number of structural revisions that would be both costly and time consuming for FCA, especially as it works to meet its ambitions production goals by 2018. Add to it that that the all-new Pacifica minivan borrows heavily from the 200’s styling, and you begin to realize that calling the face of the brand a failure and implying that it’s a copy of a Hyundai probably wasn’t the best move to make. Plus, the bit about castrating designers probably won’t do wonders for FCA’s recruiting, either.
But this kind of controversy is nothing new for Marchionne. For the better part of last year, he publicly sought to merge FCA with another major automaker, even going so far as to suggest launching a hostile takeover of GM. Before that, he mused about the future of the Jeep Wrangler before entering negotiations with representatives of Jeep’s Toledo, Ohio, plant. In those instances, Marchionne’s carefully candid statements could be used as leverage in future negotiations. With his remarks about the 200, we’re left wondering how he plans on spinning this one.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.