Twenty years ago today, at 2 a.m. Eastern time, a press release announced to the world that German automotive giant Daimler would be merging with the third member of Detroit’s “Big Three,” Chrysler, forming DaimlerChrysler. On paper, the deal made tons of sense, but in reality, it didn’t bear the fruit its creators had anticipated.
“DaimlerChrysler would be the new model for automotive synergies, a paradigm-busting leap forward in cost-efficient manufacturing and development of cars and trucks,” Bill Vlasic and Bradley Stertz write about the world’s reception to the merger news in their book Taken for a Ride.
“Economic experts predicted that DaimlerChrysler would trigger a wave of mergers cutting consumer prices across the automotive industry,” the book continues, before foreshadowing hard times to come.
“The combination looked great on paper, but could it work?” The book goes on to quote analyst Maryann Keller, saying, “When it comes to the cultures of these two companies, they’re oil and water.”
That lack of “solubility” between the two companies is why the merger—orchestrated largely by Chrysler’s CEO, Bob Eaton, and Daimler-Benz’s chief, Jürgen Schrempp—will go down in history as an utter failure, and not the triumph Eaton, Schrempp, and much of the press thought it could be when it was announced 20 years ago today. And it’s why Automotive News’ excellent, in-depth story about the merger is titled “The Culture Clash Heard ’Round The World.”
I spent a few years as an engineer walking the halls of Chrysler’s Technical Center in Auburn Hills, talking with “old timers” who, if I’m honest, had very few positive things to say about Chrysler’s “merger of equals” with Daimler.
Among the chief criticisms was “Materials Cost Management,” a program whose goal was to continually reduce vehicle cost, often at the expense of key features that customers might appreciate. Like, say, an interior whose plastics aren’t as hard as cave walls. (It’s worth noting that “Technical Cost Reduction” is still a thing at Chrysler, though it’s not as invasive as what my coworkers allege Daimler was imposing upon Chrysler; “Class A” surfaces—areas of a car that customers see or touch—are now sacred).
The interior was one of many areas of DaimlerChrysler-era products coming out of Auburn Hills that turned the company’s vehicles into an industry laughing-stock. You’ll see the poor interior mentioned in many of the early reviews for these vehicles—reviews that actually weren’t nearly as critical as they could have been. I think that says something about how trying the 2006-2008 timeframe was for the car industry at large.
I’ve already written about the abomination that is the Dodge Caliber after my harrowing trip in one in 2016. It’s a sad, sad automobile with only mediocre engine options held back by a horribly noisy continuously variable transmission and pathetic handling.
Dodge marketed the Caliber as a tougher replacement to the Neon, using the tagline “anything but cute” in the brand’s commercials. But those commercials—along with the car’s gimmicky features like the “Chill Zone” cooled glovebox, illuminated cupholders, cell phone holder, flip-down tailgate speaker and removable dome light/flashlight—weren’t enough to overcome the car’s deficiencies.
As Edmunds says in its video above, the Caliber has terrible visibility, and its relatively large 2.4-liter engine, which was optional, only got the crossover to 60 mph in a slow 10.1 seconds. That sad acceleration figure can be blamed, in large part, on the car’s CVT transmission.
“The CVT offered little connection between car and driver, leaving the Caliber feeling underpowered,” Edmunds says in the review. “Through the slalom, understeer was strong, and there was a lot of understeer.”
Though the review admits that the Caliber is attractive and has some useful features, it concludes by saying the Caliber offers “underwhelming performance overall.”
It’s not mentioned in the review above, but where the Caliber really failed was in its interior—the one place where cost savings is felt most by the customer. Not only are all the plastics rock-hard, but there’s very little trunk space. There’s also all of the little things that will drive you mad, like the lack of bezels around the door lock posts. It was just a sad attempt at building an automobile.
The Jeep Compass and Patriot were the first front-wheel drive Jeeps ever, and—to diehard Jeepers—they remain to this day the biggest abominations ever to wear the four-letter badge. But Jeep has a number of front-drive offerings today that are much, much better than the Compass and Patriot, and that’s because the original car-based Jeeps suffered from many of the same flaws as the Caliber.
Despite their “Trail Rated” badges, the two GS-platform-based “Jeeps” weren’t particularly capable off-road, and their powertrains and interiors were downright pathetic.
The Motorweek review above is actually rather favorable, with the only criticism being: “While compass is not underpowered, it certainly won’t overwhelm you.” Otherwise, John Davis seems to laud the Jeep, even saying the handling is responsive, despite the Jeep’s body roll.
“We think the Jeep Compass will succeed in venturing into nontraditional terrain without harming the brand’s solid image,” he concludes, saying “We think the Compass points in the right direction.”
But don’t let that favorable review fool you; the Jeep Compass was a shitbox, and Edmunds’ review above does a good job of showing why. “But even at that relatively low price, the Compass’s interior is still too low budget,” the narrator says. “Hard plastic covers almost everything, including the armrests, making long trips a little uncomfortable.”
The review goes on to pan the SUV’s tiny trunk space (which it shares with the Caliber), acceleration performance and fuel economy. “The Jeep Compass is underpowered...passing and merging require full throttle,” it says.
“Its lackluster interior and underpowered engine leave little reason to recommend the Compass.”
The Jeep Patriot was much the same as the Compass, suffering from the same unrefined CVT transmission. “The engine seems to race as it struggles to keep the Patriot moving,” Kelley Blue Book says in the review above.
Still, the Patriot was handsomer than the Compass, with its more Jeep-ish boxy styling; it was also cheaper, starting at less than $15,000. Still, despite the Kelley Blue Book review above, which seems relatively neutral, the Patriot is now thought of by many as just sad as the Caliber and Compass. Because it was a Caliber and Compass, only with a squared-off jaw line.
Debuting just about when the DaimlerChrysler marriage ended in divorce back in 2007, the Dodge Journey was based on similar bones as the aforementioned Caliber, Compass and Patriot, and its interior was similarly awful.
The review above lauds the seven passenger SUV’s smooth ride and “admirable handling,” but pans the weak four-cylinder base engine mated to a four-speed automatic and poor visibility.
Fast forward to 2011, and the Journey got Chrysler’s powerful Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 and an upgraded interior. But despite this, as Consumer Reports says above, the interior was still weak, and handling was unimpressive (this is in contrast to KKB’s review above, which called the handling “admirable”).
“The Journey has fuel economy like a large SUV, and unfortunately it drives like one,” the host says. Though she admits that the Journey is spacious and quiet inside, the host concludes by saying: “The Journey remains just a mediocre vehicle.”
The Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger—released for 2007 and 2008, respectively—are just more of the same. They’re built on a version of that same Chrysler and Mitsubishi-designed GS platform, and journalists who drove the car right after the release said they both suffer from a lot of the same ailments as the other crap-cans already mentioned: a weak base powertrain, poor interior quality and poor visibility.
The Sebring was arguably worse than the Avenger, because while the Avenger did offer a bit of “aggressive” styling similar to that of the then-relatively-new Dodge Charger, the Sebring—with those horrid lines on its hood and those hideous headlights—was stylistically confused.
Dodge Nitro/Jeep Liberty
Speaking of sad styling, there was the Dodge Nitro, whose flaws I’ve written about at length. Hideous, inefficient, slow in base form, and adorned with a terrible interior like the rest of Chrysler’s line at the time, it at least looked “different.” So you can give it that.
The Jeep Liberty “KK,” built on the same platform as the Nitro, was arguably better, because it could be configured with real off-road chops. It was still hideous, its base powertrain was still not powerful enough, and its interior quality was, of course, not great. But of all the cars mentioned so far, the KK Liberty is probably the best.
And if you think about it, that says a lot about how ineffectively the DaimlerChrysler merger enabled Chrysler to build quality, competitive vehicles. In this list of seven vehicles in the automaker’s lineup, the KK Liberty was somehow at the top.