Dodge Caliber ‘strongest’ Big Three launch in 3 years
Demand is so high for the vehicle that dealers are selling them as fast as they get them
By Alex Gary
ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR
DaimlerChrysler’s slogan for the 2007 Dodge Caliber is “It’s Anything but Cute,” but the slogan that’s just as apt is “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
Five months into its sales life and the demand for the combination sporty coupe/SUV being assembled at the 3.9 million-square-foot assembly plant in Belvidere continues to outpace supply.
Tuesday, company officials cited “production issues” as the only thing holding back sales of the car that replaced the Neon as Chrysler’s entry in the small-car market.
“We don’t even clean them up and put them in the showroom (when we get Calibers),” said Gary Dixon of Belvidere Motors. “We just put ’em out on the lot because as soon as people see one, they crowd around it.”
Dave Lusz, general man-ager of Anderson Dodge in Rockford, said the rare Calibers he receives that aren’t presold last “about 48 hours.”
And Ed Temes of Brian Bemis Dodge in Rochelle said the only drawback to the car is “we aren’t getting enough of them.”
According to Tom Libby of the Power Information Network, a J.D. Power and Associates company, the number of days on average Calibers are staying on lots nationwide, 11, was the same in its fifth month as it was in its second — something almost unheard of in the auto industry.
“Demand is usually much higher than supply at the beginning because people are reading about something new and eager to see it and the plants are just getting up and running,” Libby said. “As the months go on, more of the vehicles are shipped and it takes longer to move them. To have the same days on lot in the fifth month as the second is very, very unusual.”
In the last three years, the only new domestic cars that come close to the Caliber in that statistic are the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, which was spending 13 days on lots in its second month and increased to 16 days by the fifth month, and the 2005 Chrysler 300, which increased from an average of 11 days on lots in month two of its life to 15 days by month five.
Another trend the Caliber is bucking is the average sale price. Power Information Network tracks the average sale price minus incentives — which equals what buyers actually spent. Libby found the Caliber’s average price has increased each month it’s been available.
“When you factor those two statistics together, the Caliber is the strongest launch of a domestic new car in the last 37 months,” Libby said. That’s a field of more than 30 cars.
Pride of the region
The outstanding response to the Caliber is tremendous news to the local work force. DaimlerChrysler was down to less than 1,700 workers on one shift at the Belvidere assembly plant turning out the Dodge Neon. Once a star of the Chrysler lineup, the Neon was down to 113,430 in sales by 2004. The Neon’s peak year was 1996 when dealers sold 245,303 of them.
After lengthy negotiations with the United Auto Workers Local 1268 in 2004, DaimlerChrysler committed to spending $419 million at the end of 2005 and early 2006 to renovate the plant, including installing hundreds of robots to make it the most automated and flexible of its North American assembly plants, and retraining its work force for the team concept where workers collectively decide how best to do their jobs.
The Caliber, with its aggressive look, good gas mileage and better price — a base price of $13,895 that was actually lower than the final Neon version — has been aggressively marketed toward younger buyers. Instead, it’s drawn interest from everyone.
“It’s the right car at the right time,” Anderson Dodge’s Lusz said. Because of soaring gas prices, there has been an industrywide swing toward smaller cars, making the Caliber the car of the moment for Chrysler.
“It’s not even hot because of the gas mileage,” added Lusz, who said more than half of the cars he has on order are already sold. “It’s got great interior room. It’s a very smooth ride. It’s got the newest gadgets for younger drivers. It fits the bill for a lot of different people.”
Because of the positive response, DaimlerChrysler quickly re-established a second shift in Belvidere, boosting the payroll to more than 2,600. The company will add a third shift in late July, worth an additional 1,000 workers, to boost production not just of the Caliber but the Jeep Compass, which is just hitting dealer lots, and the Jeep Patriot, scheduled to go on sale by the end of the year.
The ability to add the third shift also grew out of 2004 negotiations with the UAW’s international organization. The company bargained the right to hire temporary workers, and it’s expanding that definition for the third shift. Although some of the new 1,000 Belvidere workers are transfers from other operations, the large majority are “enhanced temporary workers” being hired on two-year contracts. If the Caliber, Compass and Patriot aren’t selling well at the end of the contract, the workers have no guarantees they’ll be kept on.
The first break in a steady stream of positive Caliber news came Monday when DaimlerChrysler announced June auto sales. The company’s overall sales were down 15 percent. That was worse than Ford but much better than General Motors, which has 3,600 employees at an assembly plant in Janesville, Wis., where they assemble Su-burbans, Tahoes and Yukons.
In June, dealers sold 12,098 Calibers, down 2.6 percent from the 12,422 Calibers sold in May.
Steven Landry, Chrysler Group vice president of sales and field operations, said during a conference call that production issues were the only thing keeping the company from meeting its Caliber sales targets for June.
“That’s a good problem to have,” Landry said.
When asked to elaborate on what the production issues were in May, Landry said “the only detail I can give you is that we wished we had more shipped.”
UAW Local 1268 officials in the past have said the launches of the Caliber, Compass and Patriot are unlike any in the 41-year history of the plant. Temes, Lusz and Dixon all have heard varying totals of how far behind the Belvidere plant is on production. Neither local union officials nor DaimlerChrysler production officials were available because of the July 4 holiday.
Dixon said one comfort to owners waiting for their orders is that they will receive quality products.
“Every one we’ve gotten has been perfect,” Dixon said. “The Neon had a couple major recalls in its first year. We haven’t heard any negatives so far on the Caliber.”