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After the drought comes the flood


By John McCormick / Autos Insider

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Talk about waiting until the last minute. Under pressure to prove it has fresh, competitive product in the pipeline, Chrysler Group buckled last week and gave the media a no-cameras-allowed preview of new models due in 2004.

Many present felt the tidal wave of trucks and cars was too much to comprehend in a single sitting. With a whirlwind presentation of no less than 13 new vehicles, some key players, like the new generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, seemed to be lost in the shuffle.

Chrysler would have been better served if the product reveals had been spaced out over recent weeks or months, echoing General Motors Corp.'s savvy media strategy and giving auto writers time to digest the details.

That said, here are some off the cuff impressions of the class of 2004. First though, a few words on the new Dodge Durango, which has just gone on sale. If you can see past the front-end design, with its goofy, oversized grille, the Durango has a dramatically improved interior, with third row seats actually fit for an adult.

Gone is the depressing, battleship gray cabin color scheme, replaced by a two-tone design, with welcome touches of brightwork on the crisply styled instrument panel.

Cheaper than its predecessor, the Durango's powertrains are also more powerful and more fuel-efficient. Though it faces bitter competition from rival SUVs, the Durango is in with a chance.

The 2004 rollout starts in January with the latest from Chrysler's high performance (PVO) division, the Ram SRT-10 in January. An exhibitionist's truck if ever there was one, the in-your-face Ram design makes Ford's Lightning pick-up looks positively genteel. And according to Chrysler's COO and designated car-guy Wolfgang Bernhard, the 150-mph Ram will put Ford's performance F-150 model on the trailer. However, Ford has a new generation Lightning in the works so that battle is far from over.

March brings the PT Cruiser ragtop, which appears to be a well-executed conversion, with impressive rear seat room (compared to the Beetle or Mustang drop-tops) and practical features, such as fold down rear seats.

Next up will be the 300C and Wrangler Unlimited. I've previously made my feelings clear about the 300C's styling - I'm not a fan, mainly because of the overly tall grille. But the interior looks genuinely impressive in terms of design and use of quality materials. Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche claims the brand's new flagship will set class standards for cabin space and quietness. A chance to experience the 340 horsepower Hemi V-8 powertrain Chrysler will offer in the 300C (for a promised bargain price of $35,000) is high on my wish list.

The Jeep Wrangler has long struck me as a vehicle well past it sell-by date, with primitive ride and refinement qualities that leave a lot to be desired. Still, this Jeep has a determined fan base and Chrysler is extending - literally - its appeal with the stretched wheelbase Unlimited version.

"Now you can actually take stuff with you," suggests Joe Eberhardt, sales and marketing chief.

And Tom Sidlik, Chrysler's affable executive vice-president of procurement and supply, swears the longer wheelbase Wrangler is civilized.

The bad boy attitude Dodge is striving for will be underscored by the arrival of the Magnum in early summer. For me the jury is still out on whether buyers will appreciate the slammed, high-beltline Magnum design, but at least it comes with a superior interior than any Dodge before it. And it boasts the optional Hemi powertrain.

In May and August two of the choicest newcomers - the Crossfire SRT-6 coupe and roadster, both from PVO, hit showrooms. Today's Crossfire, only available as a coupe, is a mixed bag; good chassis and sporty handling undermined by so-so performance and a cramped cabin. The SRT-6 versions won't do anything for the interior space, but the roadster looks fetching and the 330-horsepower engine promises to turn the Crossfire into a very serious sports car. Count me in.

At the end of next summer we will see the new Dakota pick-up and Jeep Liberty Renegade, followed by the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty diesel. The Dakota continues its role as the market's only mid-sized pick-up. Its design is clean, competent and, like the Durango, much improved inside.

The fall 2004 infusion of new blood into the Jeep line-up will not come a moment too soon, but at first glance the exterior of the Grand Cherokee left me puzzled. The nose has a fresh design with stylish headlights, but the rear section appears to have reverted to an angular look reminiscent of the old Cherokee. The good news is the Grand Cherokee gains the Hemi engine option. As for the Liberty, the Renegade and diesel qualify as two solid enhancements to the compact Jeep's model line-up.

So where will all this new sheetmetal take Chrysler? It's hard to draw solid conclusions without delving into a lot more product details. But clearly the company is pursuing the 'don't try to please everybody' design strategy with a vengeance. And it's evident that much better quality interior designs are on the way. At least we know now that the company has not been sitting on its hands for the last three years.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Insider and can be reached at [email protected]
 

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Good article, sparse on details. But at least it does seem to contain a 'confirmation' of the SRT-6. Always love to see more performane vehicles hitting the market.
 
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