Chrysler: Luxury Brand Or Not?

Brand moves mainstream, whether we like it or not.

2015 Chrysler 200.

Way back in May, Chrysler CEO Al Gardner told media members who had gathered to learn about Fiat Chrysler’s (FCA) upcoming product plans that Chrysler should no longer be considered a luxury brand or premium brand, but rather, a mainstream brand. Well, I have a slight bone to pick with that approach.

On the one hand, I understand why FCA is doing this. FCA has designated Dodge, which previously was thought of as the mainstream brand, as more of a sporty/performance brand. So that leaves Chrysler to fill the gap. Problem is, people have long thought of Chrysler as a luxury brand, no matter how many minivans and subpar mainstream mid-size sedans (cough, Sebring, cough) it sold.

It seems Chrysler thinks that way, too. Sure, the newest iteration of the 200 is positioned as a mainstream mid-size car, but it’s being marketed like a luxury car. The 300 full-size sedan is also positioned as luxury alternative to the Dodge Charger.

On top of that, Dodge isn’t fully giving up on non-performance vehicles, as it will continue to sell the Journey crossover and the Durango SUV.

So, what then, is Chrysler? Is it a luxury brand or a mainstream brand or both?

Right now it’s a brand with just three products for sale—the 200, the 300, and the Town & Country minivan. Sure, a compact car and two crossover SUVs—one a mid-size, one a full-size—are on their way, and they could take the brand in a more mainstream direction depending on price and content. But I’d guess they’d be gussied up some to differentiate them from Dodge models, even if the price is considered affordable.

In general, I like Fiat Chrysler’s overall plan to overhaul the product portfolio. Having Ram and Jeep focus on trucks and SUVs exclusively makes sense, as does killing the SRT brand and moving those cars back into the Dodge brand. Having Fiat focus on “urban” cars is a good move, too.

But the plan leaves FCA without a typical full-line brand, a la Chevy or Ford. Dodge is the closest, but if you want a mid-size sedan or a minivan with a Dodge badge, you’re now out of luck. You’ll have to shop Chrysler. If you want a compact, sure, you can buy a Dodge Dart, but for a “city car,” you’ll be shopping Fiat.

Of course, customers may not care, and most Chrysler dealers will be right next to the Dodge store anyway. But I feel like there’s a bit of an identity crisis here. Dodge is now the mainstream/performance brand while Chrysler is supposed to fill the other mainstream slots and be a bit upscale? That’s odd.

Wouldn’t it be better for Dodge to be like Chevy—a mainstream brand with some performance models—and let Chrysler continue to be an “upscale” brand, which is how customers perceived it (at least before the disastrous times under Cerberus Capital Management)?

Clearly Chrysler is hoping to snag a greater range of buyers with this approach, and it’s true the brand did lose some luxury luster in recent years, thanks to models like the Sebring/last-gen 200. But I feel that if Chrysler was positioned as a Cadillac competitor, with Dodge meant to fight Ford and Chevy (just like in the old days), Fiat Chrysler would have an even stronger message to bring in its quest to get back to respectability.

Chrysler would likely counter by saying that old ways don’t matter, and trying a new approach will do a better job of getting the message out. But if I’m scratching my head, wondering if Chrysler is a “luxury” brand or not, what about John and Jane Q. Public?