It’s been decades since the former Chrysler Corp. made any serious attempt to compete abroad. But now, with DaimlerChrysler readying a three-year, $48 billion product spending spree, the future of the Chrysler brand may depend on a tiny sedan dubbed Java. In turn, the little prototype could reveal whether the much-heralded trans-Atlantic merger will ultimately succeed.
Top Chrysler officials were debating the question of whether to expand abroad long before Daimler-Benz AG proposed a merger. Indeed, going global was an underlying issue that prompted the U.S. automaker to accept the marriage proposal.
Eaton’s global urge
Since signing on at Chrysler in 1992, Chairman Robert J. Eaton had become increasingly concerned about the likelihood of a global industry shakeout. And to Eaton, that meant competing not only in the United States, the world’s largest market, but also in Western Europe, Japan, and newly emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America.
But Chrysler’s strengths at home hinted at its weaknesses abroad. What Eaton, now DaimlerChrysler’s co-chairman, described as the carmaker’s "crown jewels," its minivans, Jeeps and other trucks, simply weren’t the right products for markets with $5-a-gallon gas prices and endemic urban congestion.
That’s where Java comes in. Like other recent Chrysler vehicles, it’s a styling standout. It’s been hailed by much of the European press as one of the most striking designs to debut at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show. But at barely 12 feet from bumper to bumper, Java could nearly fit inside the cargo bed of a Dodge Ram pickup. It’s a yard shorter than the Dodge Neon, currently the smallest car in DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. lineup. Java is about 6 inches taller, however, with a creative seating design that offers passengers more useful space than Neon.
For the moment, Java is a show car, but "we have a habit of putting our concepts into production," Eaton hinted during Java’s well-attended debut. Such vehicles as the Dodge Viper and the new Chrysler PT Cruiser started out as concept cars and made the transition to production.
Java may well be just one of a series of new Chrysler-badged vehicles earmarked for global markets. DaimlerChrysler continues studying the idea of a plastic-bodied, super-low-cost vehicle based on the China Concept Car unveiled several years ago.
The synergies emerge
Other existing Chrysler-brand products could benefit from the synergies of the Daimler-Chrysler merger, according to Juergen Hubbert, the executive in charge of the merged company’s passenger-car development.
An updated European edition of the Neon may soon get a variation of a Mercedes-Benz diesel engine. The stylish, midsize Chrysler 300M sedan may be in line for a Mercedes V-8. It could enhance the car’s appeal both at home and abroad.
"To have a common portfolio of engines, gearboxes, technology and components, that absolutely … must happen," Hubbert said. But, echoing the corporate position first taken when the proposed merger was announced in May 1998, Hubbert and other DaimlerChrysler executives insisted that’s as far as it goes.
"We never will do a platform and put different brands on it and tell the world these are different products," Hubbert said. "That will never happen."