Sunday, July 5, 2009

Obama to Chrysler: You will be ruled by fiat

Accepting bailout money from the U.S. Government has its downside. Normally an action reserved for a corporation’s board of directors, pressure from the administration and a number of senators, including wildly popular Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut, resulted in Rick Waggoner, CEO of General Motors, being forced out in favor of Fritz Henderson.

Chrysler, which was declared “basically gone” by Senator Dodd, was ushered to a shotgun wedding with Fiat, the Italian automaker. Based on recent history, one might think that this union stands about the same chance as a spur-of-the-moment nuptial arrangement in the Las Vegas Elvis Wedding Chapel. After all, the producer of some of the best automobiles in the world with unmatched engineering credentials, Daimler-Benz AG, ultimately gave up trying to turn around hapless Chrysler after a tumultuous nine-year marriage.

Chrysler made its way onto my grudge list in 1996 by the actions of one of its “customer service” employees. (More on that in a minute.) I was somewhat encouraged by Daimler’s takeover of Chrysler in 1998, thinking that the German automaker’s focus on quality and engineering would rub off a little. That didn’t happen.

I hold out even less hope that the forced acquisition of Chrysler by Fiat will result in an improvement that will remove Chrysler from my grudge list. Fiat is not a leader in anything, best I can tell. J.D. Power and Associates, publisher of a well-known customer satisfaction index, rates Fiat in the bottom quartile in their 2008 survey of automobile owners in France, Germany and the U.K.

Time will tell if plucking Chrysler from the jaws of bankruptcy was a good decision. For me, I’ll give them a few years and be looking for some full red circles on the Consumer Reports ratings chart before considering purchasing a car from Fi-Chry. Here’s why.

Bar none, the worst car I’ve ever owned was a not-so-intrepid 1995 Dodge Intrepid. The same car was also known as the Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision.

I thought it was a great looking car. Even now, I look back and think the same thing. Dodge produced a whole line of esthetically pleasing cars. It was somewhere between the artist’s rendition and final assembly that something went very, very wrong.

But how important is it to own a great looking car when you spend a great deal of time driving around in the dealer’s loaner car? My first 6-day experience with the Chrysler dealer’s repair center was for three problems:

1) The air conditioner compressor would come on once after starting the car. When the interior temperature came down to the setting I chose, the compressor would kick off. Unfortunately, no matter how hot it got after that, the compressor would never come back on. The only way to get the A/C back on was to turn the engine off and restart the car. I got pretty adept at shifting into neutral while cruising down the road, shutting off the engine, and restarting it without losing more than a few miles per hour.

2) The left rear door had a “hitch” in it when being closed. You had to provide some lift while closing it so that it wouldn’t scratch the paint at the bottom of the door.

3) There was a rattle in the dash that would stop by putting pressure on the ash tray. I was already shutting off and starting the engine while driving down the freeway. Doing this while pushing on the ashtray was getting to be bit of a problem, especially while wielding a brick-sized cell phone where half the conversation was taken up with the phrase “can you hear me now?”

Nearly a week later, I got the car back and none of the above problems had been corrected. I was as surprised as I was disgusted. How could they keep my car for a week and fix absolutely nothing?

To make a long story short, and because I’ve included at the end of this blog post my list of trips to the dealer for warranty repairs, I’ll summarize my experience with the Dodge Intrepid in this way: In the first 22 months that I owned the car, it was towed three times, logged 19 separate repair orders, and spent 52 days at the dealership.

I called the “customer care” hotline to complain about the incredible list of problems and failed repairs, only to encounter a Chrysler employee who told me “if you don’t like the car, then don’t buy another one.” That is, in retrospect, excellent advice, but not exactly what I was expecting.

I wrote a letter to this “customer care” person, with a copy sent to the chairman of the board, attaching the list of problems, repair order numbers, outcomes, etc. About two weeks later, I got a call back from the same “customer care” guy, livid that I had gone over his head by copying the chairman. “I told you already,” he said, “if you don’t like the car, don’t buy another one.” Then he hung up on me.

Chrysler went straight to my lifetime grudge list.

In June 1998, I drove up to Cape Cod from El Paso, Texas, in the Intrepid with my dog and son, Dan. We were moving to Sandwich, Massachusetts, from Texas and it was too hot for the airlines to transport our black lab, Maggie, so I decided to take her and Dan on a three-day drive.

The problems started around Abilene when the air conditioner quit working. Actually, that’s an understatement. It went from blowing cold air to blowing unbelievably hot air, perhaps 200 degrees or higher. I shut it off and opened the windows. It was about 102 outside.

When we got into Arkansas and Tennessee, the car wouldn’t idle anymore. At slow speeds, I had to shift into neutral and keep the engine revved. It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic in those two states resulting from the reconstruction of I-40. As a side note, I found it interesting that the only construction we ran into on the trip was in the home states of President Clinton and Vice President Gore. So that’s how that works...

We hobbled into Massachusetts and onto Cape Cod with the Intrepid on its last legs and Maggie panting like she was on hers. With only 53,000 miles on the odometer, I suppose the life expectancy of my Intrepid must have been planned in dog years.

I eventually sold the car by putting it on consignment at a Dartmouth Chrysler dealership. Some poor sap inherited my problems and I live with a guilty feeling about that even to this day.

Since then, I’ve never considered purchasing another Chrysler and have told this story many, many times. The “customer care” guy should have been fired instantly way back then, but for all I know, he may be a senior vice president of a doomed former-American car company.

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Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

1 comment:

  1. Randy, when I worked for a living, I had to travel to Detroit to consult with Chrysler Corporation on their healthcare plans.They were one of my largest accounts, along with Forf Motor and International Harvester co. One of the requirements when we flew into town to visit with Chrysler was to be sure we rented a Chrysler vehicle, otherwise we were not allowed onto their property.
    I too have never been of fan of Chrysler products, although they were known as an inovative company. Remember, they brought America the "Hemi" engine which is still a standard in the automotive world.
    Selling Chrysler to Fiat couldn't be a worse move. Why? Italians don't know how to build production vehicles. They are great with aqua ducts, colliseums, stone statutes and other artistic endeavors and can cook exordinarily well. Damilier Benz didn't work because, as great as the Germans are with mechanical engineering, they stink with electronics, leaving only the Japanese as the true potential salvation for this company.
    So what does that leave American with? For me the purchase of Saturn Corporation by Penske is the best bet, although I have been very happy and with more money in my pocket for the last 12 years by owning Saturns, yes some with plastic sides as my friend Doug Dexter keeps telling me. They longer use plastic for the side doors as it is too expensive. Frank

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