As Fiat Chrysler's CEO sees it, the Charger sedan is the heart
of the Dodge brand. Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
What does it mean to be a "performance" brand?
That was the question a lot of people asked after the newly
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
announced in May
that the 100-year-old Dodge brand would change course.
But it wasn't the only question.
Why would Dodge
give up on minivans
, a segment it invented and dominated for years? Why move away
from family cars and trucks? And what exactly is a "performance
To find out, I talked to the guy who knows best: Dodge CEO Tim
A mainstream brand that won't be like the mainstream
"You have 290 different vehicles to choose from in the
marketplace, sold by 40 different brands," Kuniskis said. "It's
getting very confusing. People are getting numb to all the
choices. They're looking for something that's going to be fun,
That's where Dodge comes in.
As Kuniskis sees it, car shoppers are faced with a sea of
boring choices. He sees a huge opportunity for Dodge to become
the not-boring alternative, the brand that offers "mainstream
That means fire-breathing Hemi V8s, but it also means cars
that are fuel-efficient and sensible, even while bringing some of
the excitement of their tire-burning siblings.
For the new Dodge, it all starts with the
For Kuniskis, this begins with the Dodge Charger.
The Charger is a full-sized four-door sedan. On paper, it
competes with cars such as
's Taurus, and
' Chevrolet Impala.
But in real life, "27% of Charger buyers didn't cross-shop it
against anything," Kuniskis said. In other words, they
didn't shop around: They wanted a Charger, and that's what they
Why? Because the Charger isn't like an Avalon or an
Sure, you can get a Charger with a fuel-efficient V6 engine
backed by a high-tech eight-speed transmission, a combination
that gets an EPA-rated 19 miles per gallon in the city, 31
highway -- right in the same ballpark as the V6-powered versions
of the Impala and Avalon.
Equipped that way, it's a roomy and practical four-door
But the Charger is also offered with two different Hemi V8s
that turn it into a seriously fast high-performance car that also
happens to be a roomy and practical four-door sedan.
Toyota and Ford have nothing like it. And even though the V6
Charger looks a lot like an Avalon
, its Hemi-powered siblings give it an image, an appeal, that
Toyota can't match.
That makes it unique. And it works: The Charger's retail sales
growth has far outpaced the overall growth of the full-sized car
segment over the last five years. It now outsells both the Avalon
and the Taurus by wide margins.
Now Kuniskis wants every Dodge to be the Charger of its
The Challenger is about a lot more than the
The "halo effect" that sells all those V6 Chargers is what
Kuniskis means when he talks about "mainstream performance." Not
every Dodge is going to be an expensive high-performance car. But
all Dodges will benefit from the excitement of the brand's
high-performance image, he thinks.
Dodge as a brand already does a good job of attracting younger
buyers. The average Dodge buyer is 10 years younger than the
average Chevy buyer, nine years younger than Ford's, and eight
years younger than Toyota's, according to Kuniskis.
He plans to build on that advantage by using Dodge's standout
high-performance models to add excitement to the more practical
choices in Dodge's lineup.
Consider the Charger's sibling, the retro-styled two-door
Lately, the attention-getter for Dodge has been the
new 707-horsepower Hellcat version
of the refreshed-for-2015 Challenger. It's a monster, with
eye-popping acceleration numbers.
But Kuniskis loves to point to the base-model Challenger, the
SXT, which is powered by a 300-horsepower V6.
It's no Hellcat, but it has its own advantages: The 2015
Challenger SXT has all of the Challenger's sporty looks, along
with a comfortable back seat and gas mileage competitive with
mainstream sedans, at a starting price of $26,995 -- a
combination that CEO Tim Kuniskis hopes will lure buyers looking
for something distinctive yet practical. Source: Fiat Chrysler
Noting that the average "pony car" on the road today is 12
years old, Kuniskis said the V6 Challenger with the eight-speed
automatic transmission will outperform a 12-year-old V8-powered
Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro -- while getting 30 miles per gallon
on the highway.
And he noted that the Challenger is almost as practical as a
mainstream four-door sedan. Sure, it's a two-door, but it's a
two-door, with a back seat that is comfortable for adults.
As Kuniskis tells it, that makes it an intriguing alternative
to something like a Toyota Camry. He thinks more buyers --
particularly younger ones -- will be looking for "fun, unique,
different" alternatives to cars like the Camry over the next
How the rest of Dodge will become a "performance"
So how does this idea fit with the rest of Dodge's lineup?
In some places, Kuniskis said, it fits just fine. The handsome
Durango crossover "is already the Charger of its segment,"
according to the CEO, thanks to the vehicle's rugged good looks
and its available Hemi V8.
Sales of the Dodge Durango crossover were up 16% in the first
half of 2014. Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
But some Dodges will need work: The compact Dart will get a
stylistic makeover and a performance bump when it is refreshed in
2016, he said, while a new compact crossover that reflects
Dodge's updated brand values will replace the Journey at about
the same time. Both will be available in turbocharged
And, of course, the rental-darling midsize Avenger sedan is
already gone, and the iconic Grand Caravan minivan will be
Those decisions make sense when you consider that Dodges are
sold in showrooms that also offer Chrysler, Jeep, and Ram
Under the new plan,
Chrysler will sell the minivans
and mainstream sedans, while Jeep has the trail-ready SUVs and
Ram offers the pickups and commercial vehicles.
But it's Dodge, with its roaring Hemi V8s -- and its
fuel-efficient smaller engines -- that will draw the buyers
looking for something different.
Kuniskis said he thinks there will be an increasing number of
those buyers in the years to come, and he plans to have just what
they're looking for.
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