The Little Company that Won’t Die: Chrysler

chrysler_minivan_jeep_viperThe minivan. The sport-utility vehicle. The modern take on American “muscle” cars. These are all areas that Chrysler has innovated in and marketed well over the past 4 decades. However, being the smallest of the Detroit “Big Three,” Chrysler has also had a troubled history of keeping up from a business perspective. It’s been through 2 bankruptcies, 3 mergers/acquisitions, and a variety of economic conditions that have ranged from great to grinding. So why does Chrysler matter, particularly from a product development perspective?

Being the astute reader that you are, you’ve probably guessed it: Chrysler is the best example of survival through innovation. Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager were practically invented by Chrysler and still has fair market share and gas mileage numbers compared to sedans and compact vehicles (not counting the green stuff). Chrysler pushed the Jeep marque to gain significant traction in the early 1990s, leading to a surge of consumer demand for vehicles that could go off-road, carry everything plus the kitchen sink, and still get you to your destination in comfort (thus the original luxury SUV, the Grand Cherokee Limited). And finally, the Dodge Viper is an iconic muscle car that injected some American pride (and brute force) into the high performance automotive arena.

Chrysler had many opportunities to succeed in the past based on its innovation, but its lack of business savvy and missteps in the marketplace in manufacturing, partnerships, and brand marketing have significantly hampered its competitiveness. I hope that the Fiat alliance actually yields the following instead of “leaner management and overhauled manufacturing”: truly equitable technology and supplier sharing, the development of a breakthrough hybrid or electric vehicle, and the employment of lean manufacturing techniques.

Conclusion: Innovation can keep a company on life support, but it won’t do it any good if it doesn’t know how to make and sell its products.

Sources (background and pictures) include Wikipedia (Chrysler, Minivan, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Viper) and the Wall Street Journal.

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