Amid sales decline, Dodge boss sees a plan coming together

With Dodge sales off 16 percent this year in a rising overall market, you might think brand head Tim Kuniskis would be worried.

Yet standing in a parking lot with 10,000 fellow gearheads this month, Kuniskis could look around and see a strategy for the brand that is coming together nicely.

Fire-belching exhaust pipes, roaring engines, smoking tires, black T-shirts, red key fobs. They’re vital to Kuniskis’ plan to rebuild Dodge sales — and its reputation.

“Performance is good business,” he says. “But it’s way more than horsepower and quarter-mile times. Performance is an attitude first, and nobody can chase you on attitude.”

On Aug. 12, Dodge hosted the first Roadkill Nights, a free event in the abandoned parking lot of the decrepit Pontiac Silverdome near Detroit to kick off the annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

Nothing that evening was scripted, and in fact, the size of the crowd caused traffic jams and far overwhelmed the available parking nearby. It was a spontaneous Hellcat-powered frenzy that skipped over the average Dodge buyer (age 44) in favor of the 13-year-old boys and girls who hang posters of cars on their bedroom walls.

And within hours of wrapping up Roadkill Nights, Kuniskis promised to do it again in 2016. The event, he said, had earned Dodge 1.12 billion impressions on traditional and social media during the week.

“That’s the essence of what branding is all about, putting your mark on something,” said Kuniskis, 48, who took over Dodge in 2013 after running the Fiat brand in the U.S.

Dodge-podge

For decades, Dodge had been the dumping ground of the old Chrysler. The lineup was littered with shared vehicles such as the Grand Caravan minivan and Dodge Nitro SUV that had sales, but no identity.

Dodge’s product range in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s largely mirrored domestic rivals Ford and Chevrolet. It was a Dodge-podge of sedans such as the Neon, Caliber and Intrepid mixed in with other vehicles and pickups, including Cummins-powered heavy-duty haulers.

Ram was calved off from Dodge in 2009, after Fiat S.p.A. assumed control following Chrysler’s bankruptcy. Stripped of its pickup, Dodge was still asked to compete with Ford and Chevy until May 2014, when Kuniskis laid out for Fiat Chrysler investors a plan to move Dodge into the passing lane.

Dodge was entering an era of planned sales decline, Kuniskis said. The Avenger ended production in January 2014 to make way for the redesigned Chrysler 200. The Grand Caravan — Dodge’s best-seller since losing its pickups — would end production in 2016 when the redesigned Chrysler Town & Country minivan appeared. Since then, Grand Caravan production has been extended into the 2017 model year.

Decline by design

Power and performance

The Chrysler brand would now fight Chevy and Ford, and Dodge would reabsorb the SRT high-performance line and concentrate on delivering power and performance across a smaller lineup.

For dealers, recasting Dodge was well-timed.

“The timing of this move was great and OPEC cooperated by lowering the price of gas,” joked Ralph Mahalak Jr., who owns six FCA dealerships in Michigan, Ohio and Florida. “Everybody’s trying to make all of their cars performance oriented right now, and nobody’s really advertising that their car gets 35 mpg. But the amount of [Internet] action that we’re getting on Chargers and Challengers right now is just crazy.”

Now a year into his five-year plan, Kuniskis says he likes what he sees.

Sales for the Challenger — freshened in 2014 along with the Charger — have soared 38 percent through July, while the better-selling Charger is up 2 percent. Demand for the profitable 707-hp Hellcat versions of the Challenger and Charger remains strong, despite the cancellation of about 900 unfilled orders for 2015 Hellcats.

More Chargers

Grand Caravan sales are off 45 percent through July after its factory was shut down for 90 days for retooling, and FCA limited fleet minivan sales. According to Polk data, about two-thirds of Grand Caravan sales are fleet.

Dart sales fell sharply in July after the some leasing subvention supports were removed, but are still up 21 percent for the year. And Journey, which will be redesigned next year, is now the brand’s top-selling model, with U.S. sales up 10 percent through July.

“Our goal for Dodge, for every vehicle in our lineup, is to build every car as a Charger,” Kuniskis said. “Not to look like the Charger, but to do what Charger does compared to the rest of its segment. To be the square peg in the round hole that stands out from the crowd.”

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