I had a chance to sit in the new Dodge Challenger SRT8 the other day. It's a beautiful, clean and modern take on the original muscle car from the 1970s. It made me want to buy one; until, that is, I plopped into the driver's seat. Full of hard, grey plastic, with a decidedly uninspiring design for the panels and dashboard, it felt like I was sitting in one of the company's K-Cars from the 1980s.
I mean, here is Chrysler's "halo car", a car that has been so heavily anticipated by the masses for years and they finally let it out of the factory with an interior cheaper and more boring than a compact hatchback from Kia. And it dawned on me that I was sitting in tangible evidence of the plight of Chrysler. All of the so-called Big Three car makers in North America are in trouble - hence the big-money bailout loans. Indeed, most of the world's car makers are reporting problems this year - even Toyota has announced its first operating loss in six decades. So, yes, 2008 has been bad all around.
General Motors and Chrysler, who are the worst off of the North American manufacturers, have until March to restructure. But GM and Ford have already taken steps in the last few years to become better companies, and it shows in their products. In fact, Fords now top many reliability lists. (Maybe it's time to bring back its slogan "Quality is Job One". The last time Ford used that, ironically, "Job One" was "making money hand over fist on SUVs" while "Quality" was around "Job Forty-Two".)
GM's biggest problem is that it has too many brands and too much duplication between them, but the level of quality has risen dramatically: the Corvette is a world-class sports car, the Malibu has been heralded as comparable with Toyotas and Hondas, and its new compact Cruze has garnered similar talk. And its upcoming Volt electric car is possibly the most anticipated vehicle on the planet. But when was the last time you heard something good about Chrysler's products? Before the Challenger, the 300C is the last real conversation starter from the company, a product of Chrysler's pairing with Mercedes. But the Germans have left, and they've taken their parts bin and technology with them. Chrysler is now a privately owned company, and apart from the Challenger, there's not much in the works worth talking about. Chrysler now has to do what other car makers have realised - make cars that people want.
Next year will be remembered as the year the industry changed, and not just in North America. There will be some redundancies, factories closing and dealers shutting down. But a better industry overall will rise from the problems; the only question is, who will survive? As far as Chrysler is concerned, I'm not so sure they have what it takes.
Where does the time go? As this year comes to a close, we at Motoring would like to wish all of you a happy and safe 2009.