The global auto market and the cars competing in it have changed markedly over the past few decades. While years ago, a Citroen would share almost nothing with an Alfa Romeo, let alone a Chevrolet, globalisation has seen automakers from across the world shift to very similar templates for cars. Modular platforms, front-wheel-drive, turbocharged four-cylinder engines: mainstream cars that differ from this tend to be quirky outliers, like the rear-engined Renault Twingo. So, if a Chevrolet today is little different conceptually from a Honda, then why buy American? Chrysler hypothesized a combination of clever features and aggressively American styling could make its Dodge brand a success globally. While this sounded good in theory, the execution left a lot to be desired.
The American auto industry went through a few tumultuous decades of declining market share and seismic changes in consumer desires, but today the Big 3 are offering (with very few exceptions) an extremely talented and competitive range of cars. The domestic offerings that the online enthusiast community blast tend to be on their way out (W-Body Impala) or just in need of some minor tweaks (Malibu, Dart). Alas, even as recently as 2006, a European considering an American car purchase was not guaranteed the same overall level of quality and competitiveness.
For a long time, American offerings were few and far between globally. In the years prior to One Ford and GM Korea, Ford and GM employed an entirely different range of cars in Europe and other global markets. American Fords and GMs offered globally were generally niche models or terminally unsuccessful. Witness the failure of the Chevrolet Venture in Europe as the Opel/Vauxhall Sintra and the short lifespan of the Holden Suburban.
Having not enjoyed a European manufacturing presence since selling off their French and British acquisitions in the late 1970s, Chrysler took steps in the 1990s to re-enter the European market and also expand to other global markets. The global relaunch of Jeep in the mid-1990s proved to be a very wise investment, as from fairly humble beginnings, that off-road brand is now driving huge sales growth for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). It’s easy to see why: Jeep has a strong brand image, a rugged design language and most are very capable off-road. The availability of diesel engines has also helped the brand globally.
In the 1990s, Chrysler started producing select Jeep and Chrysler models in Europe. From 1992, the Chrysler Voyager and Grand Voyager minivans were manufactured in Austria’s Eurostar Automobilwerk. The third-generation minivans in particular were quite popular on the continent, and were also manufactured in right-hand-drive for export to markets such as the UK and Australia. Prominent figures like former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair counted themselves as fans of the American minivan, which was larger than European options like the Seat Alhambra/Ford Galaxy/Volkswagen Sharan and enjoyed somewhat of a premium reputation.
Chrysler’s involvement with what became Magna-Steyr also saw the European production and export of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Commander and Chrysler 300C and PT Cruiser. Between 1992 and 2005, Chrysler manufactured 850,000 Chrysler and Jeep brand products in Europe. Additionally, Chrysler and Jeep also sold numerous imported products in Europe such as the Neon, Sebring sedan and convertible, 300M and the rest of the Jeep range.
The PT Cruiser was only briefly produced in Europe, being much cheaper to manufacture in Mexico, but it was another success story for the Chrysler brand. The bold styling ensured its enduring popularity, even if underneath it was based on rapidly aging Neon bones. Speaking of Dodge’s former compact entry, the Neon was badged as a Chrysler for global markets such as Japan, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It was well-equipped but hampered by a lack of refinement and an antiquated three-speed automatic (finally replaced by a four-speed in 2002!).
The 300C proved to be a more popular executive entry than its predecessor, the 300M. Manufactured by Magna Steyr and exported in both LHD and RHD formats, the 300C was sold fully-loaded in sedan and wagon variants with 3.5 V6, 5.7 V8 and Mercedes-sourced 3.0 V6 diesel engines. The 300C’s brash, unashamedly American styling captured global attention. Competitive pricing and diesel availability saw the 300C become particularly successful in Australia as a near-luxury offering, and it still runs neck-and-neck with the Holden Statesman/Caprice in sales.
Perhaps it was the success of these Chrysler and Jeep products that inspired the erstwhile DaimlerChrysler to further expand its pool of American offerings worldwide. Enter: Dodge.
In its 100 year history, Dodge has remained primarily a North American brand. Despite this, car lovers around the world know about the Dodge Charger and Challenger thanks to American TV shows and movies, and the brand has enjoyed an image as a purveyor of performance automobiles. Under Daimler’s reign, an emphasis was put on clothing Dodge vehicles in unmistakeably American sheetmetal. Although cars like the Intrepid and Stratus were hardly shrinking violets stylistically, they weren’t bold enough for the new “anything but cute” design ethos. Out went the smooth, aerodynamic, cab-forward designs and in came the square-rigged, flared-fender, angular Caliber, Nitro, Avenger, Magnum, Charger and Challenger. Some offerings remained a little milquetoast; there’s only so much you can do with family fare like the Grand Caravan and Journey. The end result, though, was a lineup consisting almost entirely of designs that shouted “Dodge” and couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.
The global expansion of Dodge started in 2006, with the brand being introduced to China, Japan, Europe, New Zealand and Australia (Dodge already had a presence in the Middle East and South America, and remains there today; the Charger is one of the best-selling cars in Kuwait). The compact Caliber hatchback and mid-size Nitro SUV were introduced first, followed by the mid-size Avenger sedan and then finally the Journey mid-size crossover (the latter badged “JC” in Japan and “JCUV” in China). They were striking and didn’t look like anything else. They were red-blooded American in design. There was just one major problem, though: they really weren’t very good.
The Avenger and Journey eventually got substantial revisions which dramatically improved their competitiveness, although only the latter would see the light of day outside of North America. And, to Chrysler’s credit, they did offer diesel engines in the European, Australian and New Zealand markets. But all four Dodges featured a mix of one or more of the following: cheap and nasty interior plastics; a lack of performance from mediocre gasoline engines; noise, vibration and harshness; inferior handling; and prices that really didn’t compensate for all those issues.
Let’s start with what the Dodges did right, other than their striking styling. A VW-sourced 2.0 turbodiesel was available in the Caliber, Avenger and Journey, and a VM Motori 2.8 diesel four featured in the Nitro. The torquey VW common-rail diesel, used across a variety of VW Group vehicles such as the Golf, was good for 140hp and 236 ft-lb. In the Journey, the 2.0 CRD had an optional dual-clutch transmission that was praised for its seamless shifting; six-speed manual transmissions were also available on diesel Dodges. The blocky Nitro’s diesel put out 175hp and 302 ft-lb, which helped lug around the 4,162lb body while returning a fairly economical 19/30mpg. The additional torque the 2.8 offered over the 3.7 gas V6 was nice, but in Australia you paid an extra $4000 for the noisy diesel.
The Dodges scored well on the value-for-money front, offering plenty of features and competitive list prices. Gimmicky features were available on the Caliber, like heated/cooled cupholders, a chilled glove compartment and tailgate-mounted speakers. The newer Journey had family-friendly features like second-row under-floor compartments, multiple cupholders, and power outlets; the European market Journey also undercut people movers like the Ford S-Max and Renault Grand Scenic in price. The Nitro boasted a Load ‘n’ Go trunk floor that could slide out, and Dodges with cloth seats had stain-resistant YES! Essentials seat fabric.
This is where the pros start to end and the cons rear their ugly heads. For a brand with such a strong performance image, a German or an Aussie might expect this foursome to be fun to drive. Unfortunately, the reality was these sporty-looking Americans ranged from average dynamically (Avenger) to completely lacklustre (Nitro). Much of the blame can be laid on the drivetrain lineup. Although manual transmissions were available, many of the automatics were only four-speeds or droning CVTs. The diesel engines may have been willing albeit somewhat noisy workers, but the gasoline engines were like a Who’s Who of mediocre Chrysler engines.
There were no 3.5 V6 Avengers and Journeys, 4.0 V6 Nitros or Caliber SRT-4s. Instead, there was a choice of:
- The 1.8 “World” engine (Caliber) with 148hp and 125 lb-ft.
- The 2.0 “World” engine (Avenger, Caliber) with 158hp and 141 lb-ft.
- The 2.4 “World” engine (Avenger and “sporty” Caliber R/T; European and Asian market Journey) with 174hp and 166 lb-ft.
- The 2.7 “LH” V6 (Avenger, Journey) with a lacklustre 189hp and 191 lb-ft. Although smoother than the four, it drank more fuel and was vastly less powerful than rival V6s; in Australia you paid a whopping $4000 more for the V6 Avenger, although you received a six-speed auto.
- The 3.7 “PowerTech” V6 in the Nitro, with 210hp and 235 ft-lb and mated to a four-speed automatic. While not too gutless, its 16/22mpg ratings were nothing to write home about.
In terms of ride and handling, the Avenger, Caliber and Journey were absolutely unremarkable. Various criticisms were levelled at the gang, like fairly lifeless steering, an underdone ride, and unexciting handling. This was despite a different, European-market suspension tune being employed on export Dodges. The Nitro lurched more into “poor” territory, thanks to its truck origins. All Nitros suffered from body roll and bounce, and the live rear axle left the truck wallowing after bumps. Those big 20-inch wheels on up-spec Nitros sure looked nice but they led to a choppy ride and coupled with a part-time 4WD system, sabotaged the Nitro’s off-road ability.
Finally, we reach the deadliest sin of all for these Americans: their horrible interiors. A lot of critics make a big fuss about soft-touch plastics and assembly quality, but there’s logic behind that. You spend your time sitting in the cabin of the car, and you want that environment to be comfortable and welcoming. The newer Journey had an interesting dash layout and better material quality, but the other three were undeniably abysmal.
Without a doubt, the Avenger had the worst interior of its segment. The plastics were comparable to a first-generation Kia Rio – I say that without hyperbole – and the cheap-looking grey interior treatment left the car’s interior looking completely unworthy of its price tag. Up-spec SXT models added leather and some shiny highlights in the interior, but it was still depressing. The Nitro and Caliber felt reasonably spacious and had a simple, sensible dash layout, but looked absolutely lowest-bidder (the latter received minor improvements eventually). You sat atop the hard and unsupportive leather seats. Even visibility was poor, especially in the Avenger with its C-pillar kick-up which looked extremely cheap from inside the cabin.
In 2010, Chrysler effectively gave up on pushing Dodge as a global brand. Due to slow sales, it withdrew the brand from almost every market outside of the Americas, except Australia and New Zealand where the marque was reduced to selling only the 3.7 Nitro (until 2011), a single Caliber model (until 2012) and the surprisingly successful Journey. That crossover, being the most competent of the global Dodges, fortunately received the same revisions- a new, higher-quality interior, a huge uConnect interface and a Pentastar V6 – introduced in the domestic market (compare and contrast with the Chrysler Grand Voyager, which still lacks the new interior and Pentastar V6 in RHD markets). Despite the launch of the Fiat Freemont in Australia and New Zealand, the Journey still flies the Dodge banner and sells consistently.
These export Dodges just left a lot of unanswered questions. Why portray Dodge as a performance brand, and then launch the brand globally with an underwhelming slate of engines and no performance models? Why was there no image-building 3.5 Avenger or SRT-4 Caliber in the Australian and New Zealand markets? Why did Dodge not bother to engineer the Charger and Challenger for RHD markets, when they could have easily used the Chrysler 300 interior?
The reasons for Dodge’s failure may be different for each market. In China, import tariffs and a lack of brand recognition likely sealed its fate. In Japan, the larger size of the Dodge offerings may only have ever guaranteed success as a niche offering. In Europe, there were simply far too many superior choices, even from other “bargain” brands such as Skoda. Finally, Australia and New Zealand were always going to be tough markets to crack due to the extremely high number of brands competing in a very small pool. That the Journey has eked out a nice chunk of the Oceania family crossover market shows that perhaps there is an easy answer to the question, “Why buy American?” It’s simple, really: bold styling can only help so much. You need a complete package, one with a compelling combination of equipment, performance, styling and dynamics, as well as a good price. The Journey shows that Dodge could perhaps have been more globally successful if they’d just waited until they had a lineup that ticked all those boxes.