A Critic Casts His Eye on Chrysler's Cars
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Now back to the Chrysler sale and to our email challenge. We asked you to tell us if there's a Chrysler car that you like, and what kind of car you'd like to see Chrysler build now. You can call with your suggestions at 800-989-8255 - that's 800-989-TALK. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll get to those in a minute.
Dan Neil, the auto critic for the Los Angeles Times, joins us now. Hey, Dan.
Mr. DAN NEIL (Auto Critic, Los Angeles Times): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: You've driven most Chrysler's cars. What's your favorite?
Mr. NEIL: Hmm, boy, I almost don't even have a favorite anymore. Well, you know, I'm real fond of my wife's '99 Jeep Cherokee.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, the Jeep line, I mean, that's an iconic image. Are Jeeps good cars?
Mr. NEIL: Well, Jeep - the company's been busy dismantling this iconic image. You know, they were once known for these really rugged off-road vehicles, you know, the Wrangler - now the Wrangler Unlimited, which is really, you know, very tough off-road. And, you know, if you climb rocks for fun, this is the car to have.
But, you know, they have these much softer, much less sort of compelling crossover vehicles - the Patriot and the Compass - we like to call them the Compatriot. And, you know, they have sort of made a travesty of these great iconic brand and image. And I think that really has hurt them.
CONAN: Also, a lot of cars that some people say they really like, and that as I understand is done well, is the Chrysler 300.
Mr. NEIL: Yeah. Well, the Chrysler 300 was maybe Chrysler's last big out of the park hit. You know, it was that big gangstery looking sedan, and - with a big grille. It's been really popular with young people. They've sold a lot of cars. But, you know, that was four years ago, right? And what is Chrysler done for us lately? They really have king of a dearth of new products.
CONAN: And the Ram trucks, those do well?
Mr. NEIL: Yeah. You know what? I - well, I love the way they look. I mean, they look boss, and, you know, they've got that kind of macho grille and they're very aerodynamic. They have done pretty well, but, you know, again, that's -one of Chrysler's corporation issues is that pickup trucks and SUVs have fallen off quite a bit, and taken this company with them a little bit.
CONAN: Here's an email we got from Steve in Monte Claire. Best care ever - 65 Plymouth Valiant with a slant six. One of those in Mexico in the late '80s early '90s, the place was teaming one time. A Mexican cop stop may not for the usual reason, but because he wanted to buy my beautiful Valiant. (Spanish spoken) I told him. I guess that's going back a little ways.
Mr. NEIL: Well, I think (unintelligible) a genius, you know. Absolutely, it was a fantastic car. The Valiant was awesome.
CONAN: Here's another email. This one from Richard. I'm a 37-year-old car owner of an import car shop. My family bought a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica in 2005. We love this vehicle. Dual climate control that works, four heated seats, navigation in front with the driver, all wheel drive, power tailgate, an excellent audio system with a rear DVD, wireless with headsets that lets those in front to what we want to, decent mileage, side curtain airbags, the third seats fall down for the dogs to go to work, comfortable for six. America can build a great vehicle if they try.
Mr. NEIL: Except that that vehicle was largely engineered by DaimlerChrysler Mercedes, you know, as a - that is actually one of those vehicles that reflected the long sought after synergy between DaimlerChrysler and Chrysler Corp, you know. And it was a good vehicle. It wasn't very space efficient, but it was a very likeable - and is a very likeable vehicle, and no question about it. Again, that was the sort of vehicles that they were expecting to have a lot more of.
CONAN: Are there any of Chrysler's line that you think the new owners ought to take quietly around the back of the plant and put out of their misery?
Mr. NEIL: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NEIL: Yeah. Well, I'm not crazy about the Dodge Caliber and the Nitro. Both of these cars are - feel unbelievable cheap and awful. They feel like they're made of recycled milk jugs. And they just - there's just no, they just don't generate any kind of love or affection. And - so yeah, I think those definitely should be dispatched.
You know, interestingly, Chrysler has a new generation of minivans coming out. And minivans - you know, Town and Country, those sort of things, Caravan - they're really good. They're really space efficient. They're actually much better at the job people want crossovers to do. So my argument is minivans are a good bet if indeed the public will respond to them. Because when you compare point for point, performance for performance, a minivan beats a crossover of similar size and cost every time.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. Terry's with us, Terry calling form Minnesota.
TERRY (Caller): Hi, Neal. This is my kind of show.
CONAN: Oh, good.
TERRY: Say, I like that 300 myself. And maybe your guest could talk about, I believe it's the Crossfire, just a really sharp, little two-door. But I was telling your screener, I tell you right now, I'm 53 years old and what I really miss, really miss is an old Charger with a 440 six-pack and a Muncie 4-speed. I'll tell you what…
Mr. NEIL: Yeah, baby.
TERRY: (Unintelligible) you'd never reach that $100-bill.
Mr. NEIL: That's a strange test of performance, isn't it?
CONAN: I think so.
Mr. NEIL: Right, well, you know - go ahead, Neal.
CONAN: Well, I was just going to say, what about that Chrysler Crossfire that he was talking about?
Mr. NEIL: Well, again, Chrysler Crossfire was the last generation of Mercedes Benz SLK rebodied and reengineered a little bit. And it was a nice car, but it was kind of a redo or a rehash, if you want to be pejorative, of this Mercedes. And then they built the SRT version of the Crossfire, which hass a really big engine, very good car, and a very beautiful car, you know, really nice. But it's - again, along with the Pacifica, that was the sort of the idea going into the merger with DaimlerChrysler and they never really capitalized on those opportunities.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Terry, and hold on to you wallet.
Mr. NEIL: Yeah. And may I just say that the Charger with the 440 and the 4-speed Muncie, yeah, that's all good, you know. But you can't build a car like that anymore because it, you know, burns gas like an Iraqi retreat and it pollutes like crazy and it's just, you know, bad.
CONAN: Here's an email from Andrew Hayden(ph) in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The best Chrysler ever I owned: Twenty-five years ago, I found a used 1969 Imperial with a 440 cubic-inch engine from my father, the actor Sterling Hayden. He named it Boomer. This car was as big as comfortable as a house, beautifully constructed. Chrysler has kept building this type of vehicle in the form of SUVs and luxury trucks, crazy in today's world. Sad to say, but I think Chrysler is done for.
Mr. NEIL: Well, yeah, I wouldn't say it's done for. But do you know where those vehicles are very, very popular? Demolition Derbies. If you have like a '70 or '71 Chrysler Newport, you pretty much can win any Demolition Derby in any dirt track in Florida.
CONAN: Let's get Lisa on the line, Lisa calling from Detroit.
Lisa, are you there? I think Lisa has left us. And so let's try to go to Al, Al's with us from Albany, Georgia.
AL (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Al.
AL: I'm not sure I'm up to speed with your talk of Chrysler in specific, but I have a vision of a nation, you know, where we can put the 18-wheeler freight on trains and just all drive little four-cylinder good gas mileage cars. Do you think Chrysler would be into that?
CONAN: Is Chrysler going to go in that direction, do you think, Dan Neil?
Mr. NEIL: Well, you know, that's another sort of big hole in the lineup, right? Do they have a small - a subcompact car? They used to have the Neon.
CONAN: Yeah, I was just going to say, yeah.
Mr. NEIL: Yeah, the Neon was really terrific little car. You know, was it perfect? No. But it was replaced in the lineup Dodge line up by the Caliber, which is this boxy crossover thing. You know, where is the smart, fuel-efficient small car, easy to park, easy to own, fun to drive in this lineup?
AL: What I'm saying is that the 18-wheelers are keeping us off the road. We're scared of them.
Mr. NEIL: Well, the disparity of vehicle size in the United States is a huge problem ongoing…
Mr. NEIL: …because who wants to, you know, drive a tiny little car? I just drove car the Smart Car, you know, the Mercedes Smart Car? That tiny little car. And I mean, it's very lovable in lots of ways, but I felt that I was in grave danger.
CONAN: I just remembered that old New Yorker cartoon with the guy standing the crosswalk and the car wrapped around his legs, and he looks down and asks the driver, are you okay?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Al, thanks very much for the call.
AL: Thanks so much.
CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go to this is Matt, Matt is with us from Salem, Ohio.
matt (Caller): Is this Salem, Ohio or Salem, Oregon?
Matt: Salem, Ohio.
CONAN: Okay, go ahead then.
MATT: I sell cars - eight years, I sold Chryslers. And I know there are a lot of cars in the old days that people would like to see. Of course, we all would. But two of the biggest thing that I found, I sold from '95 to 2005, that the Dodge Neon in my area and the Dodge Intrepid are two cars were selling up until the bitter end.
And it seems like whenever I've gone and looked at cars now - I'm out of car business now, me and my girlfriend go look at cars, she's in the market - that the Dodge Charger and the Dodge Magnum have replaced the Intrepid, they haven't really taken off. And the Intrepid would probably be something that she would want to get, you know.
And the other comment I want to make and I'll let you guys go - in the area I live in where they have a demolition derby in Lisbon, Ohio, all the time, and the actual '71 to '73 Imperials are outlawed. You can't ever use them because it's exactly what that man said.
Mr. NEIL: Is that right?
MATT: Yeah, it's exactly right.
Mr. NEIL: So it's like…
MATT: In this area they are outlawed. If they saw you (unintelligible) you cannot use a '71 or '73 Imperial in a derby down here, so you're right about what you said.
Mr. NEIL: Yeah, I know, that's like, you know - I mean, when you talk about lead sleds, those cars were just ginormous. I mean, they'll knock you through the stadium wall.
MATT: Yeah, exactly. Hey, thanks a lot, guys. Good show.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matt.
CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze in one last call. We just have a couple of seconds. Lowell(ph) is on the line from Philadelphia. Go ahead, Lowell.
LOWELL (Caller): Yes, how are you doing? I have my Chrysler - I mean, I've been driving for 41 years now, since 1966. And I've had some pretty, you know, dependable cars. And I was just kind of sorry they stopped making the LH models. I think to me…
Mr. NEIL: Right.
LOWELL: …they were best-engineered car ever made in this country. And I have -right now I have two, a '93 Concorde and a '99 300M. But that Concorde, that's got over 137,000 miles, right. And I've had it almost seven years. I only bought used cars anyway. And that car is terrific as far being reliable and all.
CONAN: Well, we keep hearing - thanks for the call, Lowell. And we keep hearing these (unintelligible) to the great Chryslers of the past. Dan Neil, quickly, do you think Chrysler has it in them to build cars that people have that much affection for in the future?
Mr. NEIL: Well, that is the big question mark. The cars that they're talking about, the LH models cars, they were the product of a big idea, right? These were cab forward cars with transverse V6 motors that were very sophisticated for their time. And they sold really well. And now, you know, Chrysler doesn't seem to have as much vision. I think the merger has been really debilitating in terms of the aspirations of the company, the imagination of the company. I think it's hammed them in.
I expect eventually that Chrysler will emerge from the other side of this and do better. But it's a long road ahead.
CONAN: Dan Neil, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
Mr. NEIL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Dan Neil, automobile critic for the Los Angeles Times. He won the 2004 Pulitzer for criticism. He joined us today from the studios of the Times in Los Angeles.
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