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Neon replacement leaves dealer floors at 10% higher rate

Last year, the Chrysler Group proudly boasted it had broken from the Big 3 by increasing its U.S. sales even as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. suffered.

This year, the story hasn't been so good. Chrysler Group sales were down 10.9% in May and 2.5% for the year so far.

But as much of the lineup dives, the Chrysler Group's new entry in the small-car market, the Dodge Caliber, has fared well. Introduced in February, the Caliber had May sales of 12,422 units. That's a 10% improvement over the same month last year for the Neon, the car it replaced.

As he reported the monthly sales figures this week, Gary Dilts, the Chrysler Group's senior vice president of sales, said the Calibers were "virtually coming off the trucks and going out the door" as fast they reach dealer lots.

"Whatever we're building, they're buying," Dilts said.
Even before its launch, the Caliber was hailed by auto critics and analysts as an improvement over the Neon, a cute car introduced in 1994 that had since become dated.

So far, the Caliber has had a solid showing, said Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids. This year, the Caliber should easily outsell the Neon, which hit 113,000 units in 2005.

But the Caliber also is in a tough market, Merkle said. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. still dominate the small-car market with the Corolla and Civic.

"It's not a home run, like the 300 was, but it's a good base hit," Merkle said. "It's a very difficult segment to try to recapture or gain back the ground that was lost through the years with the Neon."

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