It Was A Good Year For...
11:01 pm
Wed December 28, 2011

2011 Put Chrysler Back In The Fast Lane

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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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