Commentary Magazine


An Inconsistent Car Company Goes Bankrupt

On Tuesday, my lament regarding GM’s decision to kill Pontiac brought a surprising number of car enthusiasts out of the CONTENTIONS woodwork. So, with that in mind, I present my purely aesthetic reaction to Chrysler’s declaration of bankruptcy.

My immediate — and, again, purely aesthetic — reaction is indifference. Chrysler was, after all, a car company that was hard to get excited about — mostly because it consistently failed to get its branding straight during the past two decades.

In this vein, it spent most of the 1990s producing car models that were nearly impossible to distinguish from one another — brownie points for anyone who can honestly tell the difference between a Chrysler Imperial and a Chrysler Fifth Avenue, or between a Chrysler Concorde and a Chrysler Sebring. And then there were the cars that were impossible to confuse, such as the remarkably ugly first-generation Chrysler LHS, or the please-don’t-pick-me-up-from-soccer-baseball-practice-in-that-thing Chrysler Town and Country.

Yet the company really lost me after it merged with Daimler in 1998 and began producing the popular PT Cruiser — not an ugly car per se, but a bit too German-looking for its American heritage. The briefly-produced Plymouth Prowler also seemed strangely out of place with Chrysler’s other offerings — it was almost too distinctive, particularly when it came in eggplant (and even more so when Gene Simmons was in it).

Chrysler’s Dodge division similarly suffered from inconsistent branding. Indeed, after decades of producing downright ordinary cars, such as the Stratus and Neon, Dodge finally put together a decent line-up. Check out the Caliber, Avenger, Journey, and Charger — nice-looking cars that were unified by a potentially iconic quadripartite grille. Unfortunately, it was all too late: having already jumped to equally unexciting Toyotas (zzzzz) during Dodge’s long era of boringness, Americans failed to notice Dodge’s sudden stylistic resurgence.

Of course, one Chrysler division deserves praise for its consistent excellence: Jeep, which was the first mass-market off-road vehicle and the catalyst of the SUV craze. (I have fond memories of riding in my aunt’s Grand Cherokee.) Still, Jeep suffered from a major non-aesthetic defect — poor fuel economy, which became a major liability as gas prices skyrocketed last summer.

Given Chrysler’s historic inconsistencies, it’s hard to know what we can expect now that it has merged with Fiat. Will it suddenly produce an Italian-looking model, much as it produced the German-looking PT Cruiser upon merging with Daimler? Will it still offer Jeeps? (Probably.) Will it still produce Dodge sedans? And, if it doesn’t, will anyone notice?