STERLING HEIGHTS, Michigan (AP) — Chrysler Group wants to show the world that it's serious about mid-size sedans.
After years of disappointing sales, the company on Monday launched production of the revamped Chrysler 200 — which replaces the Sebring — and the Dodge Avenger. The cars have a new look, new engines and hundreds of other changes designed to lure back customers who have fled Chrysler in recent years, scared off by its financial troubles and its reputation for poor quality.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said the company spent $300 million revamping the cars. Both go on sale this month, starting at $19,995.
"The Chrysler 200 is the first step in rejuvenating the Chrysler brand," Marchionne told 1,200 workers at the suburban Detroit plant where the sedans are made. The company is so bullish about the new products that it plans to hire 900 more workers and add a second shift to the plant later this winter.
Chrysler is aiming to be a true competitor in the unforgiving U.S. mid-size car segment. The segment is the largest in the U.S., accounting for nearly one in five vehicles sold last year, and it's the home of perennial best-sellers like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The 200 represents the biggest change, starting with its name. Its predecessor, the Sebring, was redesigned in 2006 but fell far short of the competition in style, handling and power. It came out at a time when Chrysler was fighting for resources under its former owner, Daimler AG, and it was hammered for its chintzy materials and rattling performance on the road. It was quickly eclipsed by newer, better cars such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata. Chrysler sold just 17,576 Sebrings and 38,922 Avengers last year, in a segment where sales of more than 100,000 are the norm. By comparison, Toyota sold more than 356,000 Camrys.
The cars have a long list of improvements, from new hoods and more attractive outside styling to new tires and a new optional V-6 engine. They have been retuned and lowered for a smoother — and, in the Avenger's case, a sportier — ride. Inside, they have cushier seats, new instrument panels designed to complement each brand — elegant for Chrysler, more sporty and masculine for Dodge — and new steering wheels. Chrysler hasn't released fuel economy numbers, but says they're competitive.
On the 200, which is Chrysler's first crack at moving its Chrysler brand upscale, Chrysler said it made 45 different improvements just to dampen wind noise, from new window glass to a new engine mounting system.
The cars are the first real collaboration between Chrysler and Italian automaker Fiat SpA, which took over Chrysler's operations last year after it left bankruptcy. Chrysler has released other cars since then, most notably the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, but they were in development before Fiat's arrival. The 200 and Avenger will be the first vehicles in Chrysler's lineup with a Fiat-sourced transmission.
Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst with IHS Automotive, said she was skeptical when Chrysler first announced it would redo the Sebring, but was impressed after a recent test drive.
"I was expecting some Band-Aids on it, but they spent the money on what they should, the drive and the handling," she said. "This was full reconstructive surgery."
While Chrysler has convinced car reviewers, it will have a tough job convincing the public, Lindland said. The company's U.S. sales are up around 17 percent this year. But that's in large part because of low-profit sales to rental, government and corporate fleets, not to individual buyers.
Pricing could help. The 200 and Avenger cost almost $500 less than the Camry and Fusion and are comparable in price to the Sonata. Kia, however, offers an even cheaper option. Its redesigned mid-size Optima has a starting price of $18,690.
Chrysler is well aware of the challenge ahead.
"We only have one chance to make it right," said Tyree Minner, manager of the Sterling Heights plant.