Wide-body Challenger shows that Dodge masters how should cars age
Automobiles, much like people, go through a life cycle. When young, they’re surrounded by uncertainties but also full of potential to accomplish their goals. As the years pass, their path in this world becomes clearer and more predictable but they start to lose energy. Such situation progresses up to the moment when their existence is ceased. Just like people can die at different ages, car models can last in the market for different periods. All depends on the “life” they’ve led.
Sadly, these similarities with people can be extended to the negative part: cars perform worse over time. The industry keeps researching new technologies and attempting to apply them to their products, so newer cars are usually better at everything. As the years pass, a given model becomes less and less interesting to its target audience. It’ll always have emotional appeal of some sort, but that rarely brings enough customers to make it worth keeping it in line.
This process is impossible to avoid; it can only be made slower or faster due to factors such as what competitors does the model have and how lucrative is it to the automaker. As a consequence, the usual practice is to gradually decrease investments in a car model over time. The maker tends to shift its attention towards its latest releases, so updates become smaller and trim levels are removed. Some cars become value-oriented as they age and others cling to their emotional attributes, so their makers have to adapt.
In a first glance, adopting this strategy is understandable because people tend to prefer the newest products. However, it also sends a message that it’s only good to buy and to keep cars of that company for a short time. The units bought when the model was new will devaluate too much when resold, while those offered later will simply not attract many buyers because they will clearly come across as worse products. In the long run, this causes large damages to the company’s image.
While the FCA group can’t stop its models from aging, it has dealt with it in a rather surprising way. Especially those based on the LX platform.
This structure was first released in the beginning of the last decade and is focused on full-size models with rear or all-wheel drive. Since it was developed while Chrysler was partnered with Daimler, it borrows some parts from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class offered back then. The first vehicles to use it were the sedans Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger and the station wagons derived from them (the Dodge’s was named Magnum). Later, the company created a short-wheelbase variation for the Dodge Challenger and a long-wheelbase one for a concept car.
Over the years, Chrysler adapted this lineup to the response obtained from the customers. The second generation came without the station wagons and with sportier, more aggressive design for the remaining models. Adding that to the selection of high-performance engines offered and the RWD construction made the Challenger competitive among non-luxury sports cars and the sedans very interesting for people who need a family sedan but don’t want a bland car.
In 2015, Chrysler announced a facelift for the LX models after they’ve been in line for over a decade. After so much time, one could only expect that they would finally undergo the aforementioned process and receive nothing but small tweaks in order to wait for an all-new replacement. The thing is, the Fiat-Chrysler merger happened in the meantime, so developing that replacement was not a priority. What actually happened is that those cars received an update, indeed, but a completely different one.
The first changes were already bigger than expected. The typical front and rear refreshes were joined by new parts of the sheetmetal and a complete makeover of the dashboard. Besides, the sedans got exclusive visual tweaks on their sportier versions. While Chrysler shifted its focus to the Pacifica minivan, Dodge went further: released the usual array of special editions, each one with its own theme, and the Hellcat version in the last year, whose biggest feature is a 707-hp V8 engine. Dodge says it made the Charger the fastest sedan ever produced, so it seems to be satisfied as it is. When it comes to the Challenger, the enthusiasm went further yet again.
The Canadian-built coupé later received all-wheel drive in some versions for the first time. This way, not only did it find another way to achieve better performance, it also attracted potential buyers who deal with adverse driving conditions in a regular basis. Later, Dodge went back to the asphalt and made the best of it: the limited-edition Demon was released in 2017 with several profound changes which deliver more power and dynamic behavior focused on drag-strip racing, although the car remains street-legal.
One of the biggest changes applied to the Demon is the wider body, which benefits performance by adding grip. Now, the company decided it would be interesting to keep offering it after the Demon sells out, so it became available for the Hellcat as well. Now, to be honest, this kind of trickle-down improvement is far from rare in the automotive industry; it’s how most companies work. What makes this case interesting is that all those changes and additions came when the LX platform is approaching its fifteenth anniversary – today, the usual periods are around six years to fully replace a car and twice as much for the platform.
The LX platform has been used for a long time and has spawned cars whose profit margin is generally high, so it’s safe to say that FCA is pretty much done with its development cost. Parallel to that, it’s proving itself still capable of delivering satisfying performance. As a result, the company can do better than reducing the options available to those cars in order to cheapen their production. It becomes able to explore niche markets like those of the Hellcats and the Demon because those cars are less sensitive to the potentially low sales they could have.
As you can imagine, people who bought older LX cars remain content because that means their cars still have rather positive image. And those who are looking for a car today will still feel encouraged to consider them. The company still needs to develop an all-new replacement, but that strategy buys it time to figure how to make that viable while making the current cars bring more money than if they had been simplified. Besides, the niche models work as an experiment: those which failed are dropped without big losses. And those which prospered can move on to the new project with much smaller risks of yielding low sales.
The work done with the LX cars shows that FCA, particularly through the Dodge brand, found a new way to deal with the passage of time for a car model. While most automakers pay less and less attention to a given model as it ages, this one actually does it more and more. Such strategy makes its models competitive throughout their entire life cycle and helps decide what to pursue with the following model, all without excessive costs. Such benefits manage to keep the public interested in the current car and reduces the risks the company will take with its replacement.