Vintage Reviews: Automobile Magazine 1997 New Car Issue – Chrysler Corporation

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Unlike Ford, Chrysler Corporation was raking in the profits as the 1997 model year got underway.  Seemingly, the biggest issue for Mopar was keeping corporate raiders at bay.  Working on quality would have been good too…  Nonetheless, Chrysler had a very good looking line-up of products, and continued as the lowest cost U.S. producer.  Read on to see what Automobile Magazine had to say about the new product news from the Pentastar.

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Lee Iacocca apparently was not taking well to retirement.  Lido was longing to get back in the car game in order to once again slap extra chrome and vinyl tops on those slippery Chrysler products, so he teamed up with Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian and tried to buy the company (no doubt with the intention of putting himself back at the helm).  Chrysler management viewed the bid as hostile and successfully fended off the takeover attempt.  Independence was short-lived, however, as Bob Eaton would soon be selling the whole company to Daimler-Benz, extinguishing a great run for Detroit’s perennial comeback kid.

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One of Chrysler Corporation’s strengths during the 1990s was its streamlined team structure (actually an AMC  approach) that eliminated layers of bureaucracy and encouraged risk taking.  As a result, Chrysler’s stylists developed some beauties during this era, and even with the limitations inherent in Chrysler’s low cost approach, the teams were able to work wonders in crafting appealing products.  The perpetual Achilles Heel was quality, or lack thereof, but Chrysler was quite close to world class greatness in terms of interesting designs.

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At the Chrysler division, the Sebring Convertible was one of the biggest stars: with 50,814 drop tops produced,  Chrysler led the industry in open-air motoring.  The Town & Country also demonstrated that the market for “premium” minivans was a strong one, while the Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan continued its run as America’s most popular minivan.

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Eagle would fly the coop after 1997.  No great loss, since it had never soared anyway, merely being an uncoordinated amalgam of Mitsubishi and Chrysler products for Jeep dealers to sell.  Not that Jeep needed much help anyway, SUVs were hot and that played to Jeep’s strength.  Even the 13-year-old Cherokee found plenty of takers, while the Wrangler regained round headlamps and remained evergreen as an iconic American vehicle.  Plymouth was pretty much starved of unique products at this point, wacky Prowler excepted.  The low-cost entry point into Chrysler ownership had pretty much outlived its usefulness…

Total Chrysler Corporation sales were up slightly for 1997, ending the year at 2,335,496 units.  While still ranked 3rd from the Big Three and about 1.5 million units behind 2nd place Ford Motor Company, Mopar remained comfortably ahead of Japanese rivals.  Plus, Chrysler Corporation was basically tied with Chevrolet/GEO in 1997 output, a feat that was unthinkable in 1977 or 1987.  Here are the sales breakdowns by Mopar division:

Chrysler Division  248,045
Sebring  83,954
Town & Country  76,653
Concorde  50,913
LHS  36,525
Cirrus  27,913

 

Dodge Division  1,295,129
Ram Pickup  397,258
Dodge Caravan  300,000
Intrepid  151,404
Dakota Pickup  131,961
Neon  115,110
Stratus  96,757
Ram Van  69,047
Avenger  32,638
Viper  954

 

Eagle Division  15,635
Talon  9,788
Vision  5,847

 

Jeep  472,854
Grand Cherokee  260,857
Cherokee  130,041
Wrangler  81,956

 

Plymouth Division  303,833
Voyager  150,000
Neon  82,821
Breeze  70,549
Prowler  463

 

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David E. Davis served up a quick added blurb on the new Dakota.  Ironically, the newly updated “mid size” Dakota was pretty close size-wise to what had been the pickup standard in the 1960s and 1970s.  Still, it’s “mini-Ram” styling was handsome and aggressive and it made for a nice “personal use” truck.  In the 1990s, pickup trucks took on a whole new meaning, becoming style statements as much as anything, almost like a “personal luxury” vehicle for a new decade.

Of course we’ll never know where an independent Chrysler would have gone next.  1997 represented the end of an era: the so-called “merger of equals” would smother the “good” aspects of Chrysler, like clever, forward-looking designs, while exacerbating the “bad” aspects, like poor build quality and cheap materials.