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Chrysler to import US big guns
First Published: The Age
Thursday, May 17, 2001
Expect some unexpected excitement from Chrysler over the next two years, with local plans to convert some big-hitting imports to boost the car maker's image and sales here.
By TOBY HAGON
The sleek Chrysler Sebring, retro-radical Plymouth Prowler and oversized Dodge Ram are all on Chrysler Australia's shopping list in an effort to boost the local image and add incremental sales to a brand struggling to establish itself here.
Local Chrysler boss Judy Wheeler, who has brought renewed enthusiasm to the struggling American brand, has confirmed plans to side-step the lack of right-hand-drive vehicles from Chrysler's production plants by locally engineering a factory-approved conversion for vehicles.
The plan, which Wheeler says will be locked in within a few months, involves importing left-hand-drive Chrysler and Dodge vehicles then converting them to right-hand-drive. The South African and Japanese markets have also expressed an interest in sourcing some of the converted vehicles from Australia.
Potentially some 3,000 Chrysler vehicles could be converted to RHD in Australia.
"We're looking for niche vehicles that can continue to have premium pricing," says Wheeler. "A local conversion is really pretty inexpensive ... around $5,000."
The ambitious conversion push is all part of a broader plan to boost Chrysler's image, which hasn't been strong since the brand returned to Australia in 1996.
The small Neon has struggled to sell, largely because it is expensive compared with its Corolla/Pulsar/Astra opposition.
Importing some niche products would help Chrysler justify its premium pricing, as well as drawing much-needed attention to the brand.
Top of the wish-list for local conversions is the V6-powered Chrysler Sebring, which comes in sedan, coupe and convertible forms (pictured above). The sedan is an obvious choice, but Wheeler is also keen for the convertible to provide some opposition to European brands, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Once the conversion process is refined, different body styles of the same model should be accessible.
Wheeler also wants to get some Dodge 4WDs on sale here, with the massive Ram ute/pickup (pictured), Durango 4WD wagon and smaller Dakota ute first in line. However, having already announced that the "Dodge" name is not an international brand, both would probably use the Chrysler name.
Further down the track, Chrysler is also keen to sell the soon-to-be-built Durango hybrid vehicle - which uses a petrol-electric motor - here.
But perhaps the most exciting vehicles of all are the hot rod Plymouth Prowler (pictured) - soon to be renamed the Chrysler Prowler following the demise of the Plymouth brand - and the massive 8.0-litre, V10-powered Dodge Viper two-door sports car.
The Viper has been all but ruled out, although New Zealand demand for the Prowler means it could eventually go on sale here.
Wheeler says a business case for around 1,000-1,500 sales for each model to be converted to RHD is the goal for now, although she admits that as few as 750 sales per year could be realistic for some models.
Chrysler Australia has previously expressed interest in the 300M, but it and the sleekly styled Dodge Intrepid have been ruled out due to the estimated cost. That's something the struggling Australian dollar hasn't helped, either.
As for the quality of the local conversions, Wheeler says nothing will be done without the authorisation of Chrysler executives.
"We're picking and choosing to get the right company to do the conversion," says Wheeler. "We've had a look at a few and there are two that did a good job. We can maintain (factory) quality ... and we've already had people out from America (to look at the conversions)."
Australian deliveries of whatever is decided on will start in the second half of next year. They will fill a hole in the arrival of new Chrysler vehicles.