Speculation: How a Peugeot-style branding system could work in the USA

Peugeot SA, like Volkswagen AG, tended to reflect American automakers of the 1930s-to-1980s: similar cars were sold under different brands, varying in trim, soundproofing, convenience features, and such. Peugeot maintained four brands—Citroën, DS, and Opel being the other three. That system, in Chrysler’s case, led to extremely similar cars being sold, with varying sizes, trim levels, and engines, as Plymouths, Dodges, DeSotos, Chryslers, and sometimes Imperials.

How is that relevant for Mopars in the United States? Simply put, each company’s unique niche can be strengthened with a little discipline and sleight of hand. Let’s refresh our memory of the brands again:

  • Ram: pickups and commercial vans
  • Dodge: muscle and traditional Americana
  • Jeep: off-road and high-end SUV
  • Chrysler: whatever is left over*

Now, let’s look at today’s Jeep Cherokee, a vehicle oddly based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Buyers face a bewildering array of options and trim levels; it’s enough to drive one into a RAV4. Prices start at just $26,555; the top model, High Altitude, starts at $37,185. Overall, we find on Jeep’s home page no fewer than nine models. All but one are available with front drive or all wheel drive, though they all carry the Jeep badge. Just one is rated for off-road use, coming with skid plates and the like.

Now, consider what would happen if we applied the old Chrysler strategy (but did it better than Chrysler ever did), or the new Peugeot strategy. We would replace those nine models with two or three models each, on three brands. The names don’t matter, they are only for illustration:

Jeep Cherokee: Trailhawk version only; the best engine for off-road use only; three trim levels, with varying degrees of luxury and convenience

Dodge Monaco: sport-tuned all wheel drive only, with the most powerful possible engine (e.g. 2.0 turbo hybrid), a firm and sporty ride, and no off-road capability; two price/trim levels

Chrysler Saratoga: FWD or AWD, economy or power engines, luxury appearance and features, smooth ride, no off-road pretensions at all; possibly just one price/trim level

Now, we have no more apparent complication than we did before, but buyers are faced with a much easier choice; and the Monaco and Saratoga are both better at on-road driving than a base Cherokee. Why, you ask?

Under the skin, the Cherokee is the only one designed and engineered for off-road use. Its body is unique. The Monaco and Saratoga use the same dimensions as the current non-Trailhawk Cherokees, but the bodies do not need to deal with off-road issues such as having a single wheel raised up by a foot while the other wheels are all dropped down. Torsional stresses in ordinary life will not be a big issue for these cars, so they can be built lighter—which makes them perform better. The same goes for any suspension parts which need to be toughened up for Jeep use. Nobody will care if a Dodge or Chrysler breaks when taken off-road.

Tuning is the main difference between the Dodge and Chrysler. That means shocks, springs, and computer settings for the electric power steering and transmission. The Dodge gets the exciting transmission setup with SRT-speed shifts, a preference for downshifting on acceleration, higher shift points, and such; gas mileage won’t be quite as good as in the Chrysler. Likewise, the Dodge gets a firmer suspension that lets more road feel through, more like the old Neon or past-gen Mazda3 than the soft, compliant, comfortable Chrysler.

The end result is that each brand is strengthened with a model that is consistent with its character; and a single dealership can sell all of them without overlap and, (this is important), without a single extra vehicle in its inventory, because we’re replacing nine trim levels with six.

* Originally, Chrysler was a moderately above-median mass-market car with luxury car features; pricing was well above Ford, but below the true “luxury” brands. Plymouth, when it was launched with the car sold as the Chrysler Four a year earlier, exacted a smaller premium, but was still more expensive than the equivalent Chevrolet or Ford. Chrysler has moved up and down over the years, but today, selling just a sedate version of the Charger sedan and a minivan, it’s a premium-looking car selling at a mainstream price.   


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