Chrysler And China Drive Auto Market

12/27/2011 12:29 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012
  • Steve Parker Journalist/Broadcaster covering the auto industry and auto racing for 35 years

What were the biggest automotive stories of 2011?

There were certainly plenty to choose from. From GM offering to buy back every one of the 6000-or-so Volt hybrids which were sold, and had a tendency, in testing, to catch fire after an accident, to Toyota announcing plans to produce more than eight million cars worldwide in 2012, the auto news was hot and heavy on a daily basis.

Having trouble narrowing our own list, we went to industry analyst Jim Wangers, founder of Automotive Marketing Consultants, Inc., for some answers. Wangers has been working n the car business for almost 70 years, so we figured his point of view would have value.

And his list of top stories had some surprises.

The top story of the year, according to Wangers?

The resurgence of Chrysler. Their snappy "imported from Detroit" marketing campaign and the intro of the "200" model caught the public's attention, and the company starts out 2012 flying high. And though sales of Chrysler were hot, it's the Dodge Ram truck which really drives the company. Chrysler is selling the Ram without the Dodge name, and in a few years, says Wangers, the Fiat-built Avenger may be the only Dodge-branded car sold by the company.

That's right -- Fiat. The gigantic Italian company now owns Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep, but Wangers says most people don't know the Fiat name and even if they do their opinion will be pretty neutral. The reality is that 2012 will be one of the last years that Chryslers and Dodges engineered in the U.S.A. will be in the showrooms. One example is the upcoming Dodge Dart, as the company rolls out an old name for a new model which is actually built by Fiat's Lancia division -- talk about confusion for the consumer!

For the power-hungry among us, the company promises a new Viper for 2012, but it remains to be seen if the company will make the huge investment necessary for an all-new car.

It hasn't been all winners for Chrysler. The intro of the Fiat 500, one of the most popular cars in Europe, has been a bust. Their hiring Jennifer Lopez for their advertising was a good idea, but Wangers says, "The car was on trial and it failed, whether due to bad marketing, poor distribution or any other number of reasons doesn't matter. The 500 was the re-introduction of the Fiat name to Americans, and the truth is that J. Lo was probably better than the car!".

Other big stories, according to Wangers, include Ford's Lincoln luxury division becoming confused and meaning little to potential buyers, Buick having a good, significant car in the LaCrosse but little else, and good news for General Motors --- their Chevy Cruze and Sonic models have great potential for 2012 and beyond.

When it comes to imports, no one can argue with the success of Hyundai and Kia. The Korean companies (actually one company selling two brands in the U.S.), Wangers says "show incredible value and remarkable strength. It all really started with the Sonata sedan in 2010 and suddenly, Kia, which had no name recognition, is now significant in the marketplace."

Big story for 2012?

One will surely be the appearance of Chinese-made cars in the U.S. Honda has just announced that Chinese-made Fit models will be sold in Canada in 2012. The marketplace is going to be driven not only by the dollar, Japanese Yen and Korean Won, but by the Chinese economy, which is now the biggest automotive market in the world.