Chrysler turns back

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Chrysler knows first-hand how tough it is to change brand perception.

In March, it abandoned its self-proclaimed "path to premium" strategy begun with its 2004 Pacifica launch and returned to its roots as a value brand with the positioning "premium in the product, not the price." After buyers balked at the $40,000-plus sticker for a high-end Pacifica, Chrysler is introducing its entry-level Pacifica 2005 at $24,995.

But what's really lifting the brand is a hot new car: its 2005-model 300 sedan. The automaker said it sold 16% more Chrysler branded vehicles through July 2004 than a year ago, including 53,708 of the 300 sedans. Jeff Bell, VP-Chrysler brand, said 22% of all 300 buyers through July came from import models. Moreover, buyer consideration for the entire Chrysler lineup rose about 25% vs. a year ago; awareness is up 50%.

"The buzz has landed on that vehicle and it was not induced artificially," said Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP of Omnicom Group consultancy AMCI. The 300 "is visually arresting and has a much broader appeal than any sedan out there."

The 300 sedan starts at $23,595 going to $32,995 for the top-of-the-line 300C, which comes with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine. The 300 range jumps to $34,820 when the all-wheel-drive 300C model arrives this fall.

The 300 is "as hot as anything we've seen out there" in the industry, said Wes Brown, a consultant at Ideology-maybe hotter than General Motors Corp.'s introduction of Hummer. But while the 300 is dramatically designed and is a great value, Chrysler's challenge will be to repeat that formula in upcoming models.

When asked whether one strong model can keep lifting an entire brand, Mr. Brown cited Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln brand. Its 1999 Navigator sport utility attracted first-timers to the brand, but didn't increase sales of other Lincolns or improve the brand's image because subsequent products weren't segment-busters.

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