Monday, May 29, 2006
Caliber: Small car, big sales
Dealers see orders double within a few weeks for Chrysler vehicle with nifty features, modest price.
Josee Valcourt / The Detroit News
When the Dodge Caliber was merely a sketch on Chrysler Group's drawing board, the company's designers and marketers had one guiding principle -- it couldn't look cute.
That design call -- made in 2001 -- for Dodge's tiniest vehicle and the decision to outfit it with nifty features such as a refrigerated glove box, foldable seats, removable flashlight, lighted cup holders and fold-down rear speakers ideal for tailgating, is paying off big in early sales.
A base price that starts at $13,985 hasn't hurt, either.
While it may be too early to call it a blockbuster like the Chrysler 300, the Caliber is shaping up as a solid success at a time when the Chrysler Group is at risk of losing momentum.
Since its February launch, the Caliber has climbed the sales charts, reaching 11,232 units sold in April. The early sales have helped the Dodge brand offset troubling weaknesses in its truck, SUV and minivan lineups.
"Everybody is selling them as quickly as they can get them," said Andy Palmen, chairman of the Dodge National Dealer Council and general manager at Wisconsin-based Palmen Motors Dodge Jeep. "We know that the sales number will increase. The question is, how far will it go?"
The Caliber is racing to the front of a crowded field of five-seat hatchbacks such as the Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra and Pontiac Vibe and already has 5 percent of the compact car segment.
"That's impressive, though it's only in its third month," said Tom Libby, an analyst with Power Information Network, a J.D. Power and Associates division.
In the first 14 days of May, the Caliber's transaction price averaged $17,951, compared to $16,973 for models in the premium compact car segment, according to PIN data.
And the orders are mounting. Dodge has 48,700 dealer orders for the Caliber, up from roughly 20,000 several weeks ago, said Chrysler spokesman Kevin McCormick.
At Palmen Motors Dodge Jeep, demand is so high that at one point the retailer didn't have a vehicle to show interested customers. For two weeks, a rented Caliber was showcased while the dealership awaited another shipment from the Belvidere, Ill., factory where the Caliber is built, Andy Palmen said.
At a time when many Big Three factories are closing and laying off workers, Chrysler plans to add a third production shift at the Belvidere factory in July to keep up with demand. The factory will begin production of the new Jeep Compass on Tuesday, and the Jeep Patriot will be added to the flexible line later this year.
Analyst Jim Sanfilippo of automotive consulting firm AMCI Inc. said Chrysler should resist the urge to the flood the market with Calibers. "You want to keep the tension just right so that the message to the customer is that there's high demand," he said.
The Caliber's appeal validates the axiom that eye-catching design is the best and sometimes only way for Detroit's automakers stand out in a sea of competent vehicles hitting the market.
Greg Howell, a Chrysler designer, said Dodge started with the idea that the Caliber had to be a true Dodge. That meant it couldn't look cute, a mission that's easier said than accomplished with a small car.
The answer was a radical departure from the soft, round-eyed looks of the Dodge Neon it replaced. The Caliber's crosshair-style grille and chiseled, big shouldered lines help it stand out on the road.
"On a small car, that becomes harder to do, so you almost have to go that extra step with the fenders and grille," he said. "You want to get them bold and as big as possible so that it's in your face."
While the Caliber's rugged looks and innovative features are driving sales, so too is a marketing approach that includes edgy TV commercials and a heavy emphasis on Internet marketing.
Caliber ads can be found on lifestyle Web sites such as The Knot.com and Office Pirates, social networking sites like My Space.com, and in computer and video games.
Next week, Dodge will release a third television ad for the "It's Anything But Cute" campaign titled "Focus Group."
The commercial features five animated cute creatures who partake in a focus group for the Caliber. The vehicle's look doesn't generate feelings of warmth and fuzziness, the animated characters say.
The Caliber also will be featured in eight episodes of TNT's drama "Saved," which airs in June.
"We're not finished yet," said Chrysler spokesman Mark Spencer. "We're hitting on all cylinders."
Though Dodge is targeting college-educated singles ages 25-35 with a median income of $45,000, dealers say the Caliber is proving to have broad appeal.
"We're seeing all ages and demographics interested in the Caliber, from retirees to first-time car buyers to people looking for an economy car," said Tony Jerome Jr., general manager at Tamaroff Dodge in Southfield. So far, Tamaroff has sold 40 Calibers and has 25 buyers on a waiting list.
Brennan Brown, a 30-year-old professor at Northwood University in Midland and head tennis coach at Holly High School, recently bought a black Caliber SXT.
"I didn't think it cute. I thought it was cool," said Brown, who first considered a Vibe, Honda Civic or Ford Focus.
"I like all the value-added features," said Brown, who found the removable flashlight and a overhead lamp useful one night when a tennis student lost his keys in Holly High School's parking lot.
After a test drive at Tamaroff Dodge, Carol Ann Laverne, a Metro Detroit nurse in the market for new wheels, concluded the Caliber had more pep than competing models she drove.
Laverne said she loves the Caliber cargo space, a continuous variable transmission for smoother shifting and fuel efficiency.
"It's not the gas-sucking SUV," said Laverne, who was going to test-drive a Mazda3.
Kimberly Dorband, 16, who works at a bowling alley, saved money for a year to purchase her white Caliber SE, which friends call "the SS" -- as in space shuttle.
The Warren resident was thinking of buying a Dodge Dakota pickup or Pontiac Vibe. Her father suggested she take a look at the Caliber, which he said was affordable and safe. Side-curtain air bags are standard. But Dorband's reason for purchasing the car came down to its looks. "I thought it was cute," she said, giggling.
That might make the Caliber's designer wince a little, but they'll take the sale.