Image: Chrysler 200
Sunday’s Super Bowl game saw a powerful ad air for U.S. automaker Chrysler — a company desperately in need of some serious buzz.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 2/9/2011 7:49:43 AM ET 2011-02-09T12:49:43

Monday morning quarterbacks will always dissect the passes, fumbles and touchdowns in Sunday’s Super Bowl game, but the event has generated at least as much hindsight analysis for the 60 or so commercials that spaced out the game — and few are generating more buzz than a long and cinematically-styled ad that had rap star Eminem pitching for Chrysler.

With rare exception, the initial surveys show the $9 million, non-traditional 2-minute commercial kept Super Bowl viewers in their seats — and it got them talking about a company that, just months ago many were ready to write off as dead, experts say.

“Even in places where you wouldn’t expect to get a strong positive reaction [to a Detroit brand], like L.A. and Seattle, the reaction was extremely good,” said Art Spinella, director of the Oregon-based research firm CNW Marketing.

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“The negatives on it were so small as to be inconsequential,” he added.

Although the ad focused on the new Chrysler 200 sedan, it didn’t contain the traditional pitch for a new car. Instead, it showed the Detroit rapper Eminem driving through the city of Detroit, seen in both its rawness and its glory, with the façade of a crumbling building and empty abandoned fields as well as the lavish Westin Book-Cadillac hotel and restored Fox Theater.

The spot challenged viewers to reconsider their ideas about Detroit, and with the music from Eminem’s film “8 Mile” in the background the ad concluded with Eminem joining a gospel choir on stage and delivering a message that ran 11 words in total:

“This is the Motor City, and this is what we do.”

Just two years ago it wasn’t clear if any of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers would be doing anything for very much longer, and certainly not Chrysler.

President Barack Obama initially rejected expanding on the temporary rescue approved by his predecessor, George W. Bush, agreeing to offer a new bailout only if Chrysler entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and emerged under the guidance of the Italian automaker, Fiat — the only automaker that appeared interested in saving the Detroit manufacturer.

Even after Chrysler emerged from court protection in June 2010, its future appeared uncertain. Fiat’s chief executive Sergio Marchionne admitted in a day-long November 2009 briefing for analysts and media that Chrysler’s turnaround would, at best, take a number of years.

Indeed, going into the 2011 model-year conventional wisdom held that Chrysler had little to brag about — certainly nothing that would justify putting on a commercial four times the length of a normal car ad and during a television event where each second of air time officially costs some $100,000.

But Chrysler has “delivered some surprises” recently, according to analyst George Peterson of research firm AutoPacific. The automaker has experienced strong demand for the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was one of two Chrysler products (the other was the all-new Dodge Durango) to vie for the North American Truck of the Year award, presented at last month’s 2011 Detroit auto show.

The two Chrysler vehicles ultimately lost out to the newly-redesigned Ford Explorer, which took the top honor at the show. Still, last Monday the Jeep was named the only U.S. finalist for the World Car of the Year award, going up against such European powerhouses as Audi (with its new A8) and Mercedes-Benz (with the gull-winged, $250,000 SLS supercar).

Chrysler is also winning praise for the all-new version of the 300 sedan, which will reach showrooms in the coming weeks. The updated car is getting solid reviews, and even the 200 sedan that Eminem was shown driving in Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad has received unexpectedly positive reviews.

Specifically, Chrysler’s new models are receiving rave reviews for the dramatic upgrading of their normally Spartan cabins which, acknowledges interior design director Karl Busse, have traditionally been a sea of “battleship gray plastic.”

Then there’s the Fiat 500, the microcar Chrysler’s Italian parent is shortly to launch in the U.S. Known in Europe as the “Cinquecento,” the car will be one of the smallest on U.S. highways and a distinct alternative to the big trucks, SUVs and crossovers Chrysler is best known for.

Last month, Fiat met the first of three criteria the Obama Administration set the carmaker for it to increase its stake in Chrysler in 5 percent increments, from 20 percent to 35 percent. And Marchionne, the Canadian-educated executive who serves as CEO for both carmakers, has expressed plans to pay back $5.8 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans, which would allow Fiat to land a full 51 percent stake in Chrysler.

Last weekend the Fiat executive had to apologize for labeling the 11 percent interest rate on those government loans as a “shyster” rate, but he also reversed his previously skeptical approach to fully merging the two car companies, saying, “Who knows? In the next two or three years we could be looking at one entity.”

Marchionne also hinted that the headquarters for a consolidated Fiat/Chrysler could be based in Detroit rather than Turin, Italy, or split between the two. The executive later backed off the last comment, but observers note that Marchionne has been using Fiat’s expanding U.S. base to press Italian unions — and possibly the Italian government — to offer much sought-after concessions.

The dual CEO has plenty of work ahead of him, especially on the U.S. side of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Late last month Marchionne revealed a $652 million loss for all of 2010, although that amount was down from $8 billion in red ink seen the year before. And, significantly, Chrysler posted an operating profit of $198 million for the fourth quarter. The company says it will see a profit for between $200 million and $500 million for all of 2011.

The carmaker’s double-digit January sales increase is a sign it’s moving in the right direction. Indeed, it is struggling to meet demand for the Grand Cherokee, which has seen sales soar 130 percent. After several years of steady declines, Chrysler has now had sales gains for 10 straight months.

Yet there are still some worrisome challenges for the U.S. automaker. A wave of new vehicles, due to start rolling out for 2012, must prove Chrysler and Fiat can work together on global product platforms. Those cars — and the “place-holder” offerings of recent months — must overcome the maker’s reputation for low-quality vehicles.

Chrysler has been the one domestic carmaker “that hasn’t improved,” complained David Champion, chief auto tester for Consumer Reports magazine, during a presentation several months ago. But looking at some of the maker’s latest offerings, he added, “They seem to have a different mindset to build a quality vehicle” since hooking up with Fiat.

Whether that mindset will translate into great new products remains to be seen, Champion cautioned.

It also remains to be seen whether American motorists will respond positively to the new vehicles. Even with the recent sales gains, Chrysler is a mere shell of its former self. Indeed, it’s not even on the radar screen for most U.S. car buyers these days, noted Spinella.

But there’s “a hum” out there and it’s starting to get louder, Spinella added. If Chrysler can continue to deliver unexpected product — and back that product with more breakthrough advertising — “that could turn into a serious buzz,” which in turn could translate into a turnaround this carmaker so desperately needs.

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Video: Watch Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad

Explainer: 2011: The year of the reborn minivan

  • Image: Dodge Caravan

    The minivan has been alternately pronounced dead and revived repeatedly as various alternatives have debuted and departed. But the van chugs onward, unassailable in its position as the best vehicle for transporting the maximum number of people in the least amount of space and with the least amount of fuel.

    Minivans are easier to park than long-snouted crossover SUVs, they have more fight-reducing elbow room inside and their sliding doors mean that the young’uns don’t inflict insurance claims on adjacent cars every time they climb in or out of the van.

    Are minivans cool? TODAY Moms weigh in

    Whether 2011 marks a renaissance for minivans or just the recognition that this is a critical segment that isn’t going to be displaced, carmakers clearly agree on one thing: They need fresh products because every minivan currently on the market will be replaced during the 2011 model year, or in calendar year 2011.

    Indeed, Americans bought more than 460,000 minivans last year, and with appealing all-new choices, 2011 should attract even more minivan adherents.

    Here’s a list of new minivans for 2011.

  • Chrysler Town & Country

    Image: Town and Country

    When Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca conceived of a “leather minivan” for the 1989 model year, the Town & Country was his notion that just because a box on wheels is practical doesn’t mean it can’t also be comfortable and luxurious. Now that model is more feature-packed than ever. Leather doesn’t set a van apart from the rest anymore, so the 2011 Town & Country has standard rear back-up camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to minimize the chance for “I didn’t see it” accidents. The 2011 Town & Country should be well-received, as the 2010 model was already America’s top-selling minivan, accounting for a quarter of all minivan sales.

  • Dodge Grand Caravan

    Image: Dodge Caravan

    The Dodge Caravan was the minivan that launched the minivan segment (along with the Plymouth Voyager) in 1984. As vans in the class grew not-so-mini, so did the Caravan’s name as it became the Grand Caravan. The Grand Caravan is Dodge’s version of the same vehicle as the Town & Country, and it aims to be less expensive, with less standard equipment, while offering a hint of sportiness (presumably just in case you need to race to the local Target for another box of Pampers). Key is the new 283-hp Pentastar engine, giving Dodge (and Chrysler) van drivers Hemi-style bragging rights for the most power. Cue Tim Allen.

  • Ford C-Max

    Image: Ford C-Max

    Minivans have become maxi-vans, leaving a potential opportunity for smaller vans. Mazda has been in this space with its Mazda5 for several years, but a large brand like Ford could legitimize this so-far marginal van sub-segment. Ford terms the C-Max a 5+2 seater, recognizing that the third row is suitable for car-pooling teammates on their way to soccer practice, but is also probably not ideal for adults on long drives. Segment exclusive gadget: a sensor that lets a person carrying the van’s key to wave a leg under the back bumper to open the hatch, saving them from fumbling for keys while carrying groceries. Ford has announced plans for hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max for 2012, making it potentially the most fuel-thrifty family hauler.

  • Honda Odyssey

    Image: Honda Odyssey

    Honda destroyed the myth that “minivan” equals “Chrysler” when its innovative Odyssey van set new standards for convenience features and garnered large sales. Until the Odyssey, competitors blamed the weak sales of their poor products on customers’ reflexive purchases of Chrysler vans, but Honda proved that consumers just want practical features. The new-for-2011 Odyssey proposes that consumers want a sleek, stylish minivan. It remains to be seen whether shoppers will be attracted by the styling, or whether they will continue to look past exterior appearances and concentrate on interior features. The rear seat video screen is so wide that its can show two different episodes of Dora the Explorer (or any other video content) simultaneously, side-by-side on the screen.

  • Kia KV7 concept

    Image: Kia KV7
    AFP - Getty Images

    Kia is the only minivan maker that doesn’t have a fresh family hauler headed to showrooms in coming months, if not there already. But lest anyone think that the aggressive Korean upstart is satisfied with being left behind in the face of new competition, Kia unveiled the KV7 concept at the Detroit auto show, previewing the styling for its next generation Sedona. Of course, the Sedona won’t actually have the KV7 concept’s outlandish gull wing doors, but auto show concepts are supposed to be outrageous. Just don’t expect your kids to be able to disembark from the van’s back seat like Marty McFly climbing from his time-traveling DeLorean.

  • Mazda5

    Image: Mazda5
    Mazda Motor Corportaion

    People movers are smaller in Japan, but Mazda thought its best solution to replacing its old MPV minivan was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” by importing a smaller Japanese-market model with no direct competitor in the U.S. market. The six-seat Mazda5 retains the light weight and simplicity of manual sliding side doors that are so carefully designed that they close with the push of one finger. The 2012 iteration carries expressive new styling too. And this van’s claim to fame? Enthusiast drivers can buy one with a manual transmission if they want. Zoom zoom.

  • Nissan Quest

    Image: Nissan Quest

    Nissan has followed its own path in the minivan segment, admirably and unsuccessfully, as family van buyers didn’t buy into the Quest’s quirks. For 2011, Nissan has punted that strategy, introducing a thoroughly conventional and completely equipped contender that should easily gain the attention of Odyssey and Sienna intenders rather than scaring them off. Available dual sliding glass moonroofs allow more light and air into the van’s interior depths than is normally the case, while still permitting space for the overhead video screen.

  • Toyota Sienna

    Image: Toyota Sienna

    Toyota saw Honda’s success in challenging Chrysler directly with a full-sized contender and followed up with a bigger Sienna that was an instant hit. The 2011 Sienna continues that path with available eight-passenger seating and the only available four-cylinder engine among full-size minivans. Unfortunately, there is only a slight fuel economy benefit from the smaller engine, but it could be a step in the right direction. And the Sienna is the sole all-wheel-drive minivan on the market, making it a viable alternative to a crossover SUV for customers concerned about all-weather security.

  • Volkswagen Routan

    Image: Volkswagen Routan

    The truth is that Chrysler did not invent the minivan; Volkswagen did, way back in the 1950s. The old Beetle-based microbus was the first minivan, but the company let that legacy wither away over the decades. VW still makes vans in Germany, but they are too expensive to be competitive in the price-sensitive U.S. market. So instead the automaker sells its own version of Chrysler’s minivan, branding it the Routan. So far sales have been tepid, but a refreshed version of the van (not yet revealed) featuring the improvements seen in the new Chrysler vans should make the Routan more appealing to U.S. car buyers.

  • Ford Flex

    Image: Ford Flex

    Ford’s Flex gets an honorary mention here. It’s almost a van, and derived from the Fairlane concept, which like the Kia KV7 debuted wearing impractically designed rear doors. In the Fairlane’s case, they were rear-hinged “suicide” doors rather than Kia’s top-hinged gullwings. Regardless, they didn’t make it to production on the Flex. Ford considered proper sliding doors to make the Flex a minivan, but consumer clinics revealed such a strong customer aversion to minivans that Ford estimated it could sell triple the number of Flexes if the vehicle were equipped with SUV-style hinged rear doors, according to Ford styling chief J Mays. But in 2010 Chrysler sold three times as many Town & Country minivans and three times as many Grand Caravan minivans as Ford sold Flexes. Maybe if it had suburban-chic sliding doors Ford would sell more of them.


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