(USA Today) -- Chrysler Group will switch to just one midsize sedan early next year, eliminating the Dodge Avenger and retaining the Chrysler 200 name for a new, Fiat-based model.
The car company apparently believes it can unite its marketing behind a single new sedan and do a better job challenging midsize sedan sales champions Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
Midsize cars comprise the biggest slice of the new-car market. An automaker without a serious player there is leaving thousands of sales and tens of millions of dollars on the table.
Chrysler won't say what, if anything, will replace Avenger. The five-year plan Chrysler rolled out November 2009 shows a new midsize SUV at the same time as the new 200 sedan, but that SUV's listed as a Chrysler-brand model, not a Dodge. Chrysler points out that the plan is subject to change.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a conference call in January, discussing Chrysler earnings, that "the new Chrysler 200 gets launched in 2014," after a makeover at the Sterling Heights factory that builds the current 200 and Avenger.
Sterling Heights could build many different vehicles; an SUV version using the same underpinnings as the new 200 sedan would be a relative snap.
That's because Sterling Heights is getting a new, flexible-manufacturing, body-assembly and paint facility, able to build and paint any Chrysler Group model except Ram trucks and the ProMaster commercial van.
The new body-paint complex is under construction adjacent to the current plant, and is about 85% complete.
The new facility will open late this year or early next to build the redesigned 200, and could accommodate a midsize SUV or other vehicle to replace the Avenger.
The main factory is shut temporarily for the auto industry's normal summer break. When it resumes production it will make carryover 2014 models of the 200 and Avenger until later this year, as well as the 200 convertible, which is sold overseas as the Lancia Flavia.
That will allow the car company to stock up on midsize sedans to last until the new vehicles hit the market early next year, avoiding the sales gap it endured when it discontinued the Jeep Liberty before it had the replacement Cherokee ready.
Chrysler gave a tour of the new body-paint facility Tuesday. Comments made during the tour sparked a number of conflicting reports - mostly wrong, Chrysler says -- about the timing of the new model and what would replace the Avenger.
The automaker's apparent midsize vehicle strategy is somewhat like its approach to the company's venerable and signal minivans - no need to sell essentially the same product under two names, requiring double the marketing expense. The Chrysler Town & Country minivan will be discontinued next year, Marchionne has said, and a new-design minivan will replace the Dodge Grand Caravan.
Chrysler brand gets a replacement "people mover" vehicle, which might keep the T&C name, but it won't be a van, Marchionne has said.
The Chrysler 200, previously called Sebring, had its 15 minutes of fame in Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" 2011 Super Bowl TV ad, showing Detroit native singer Eminem proudly piloting a 200 around the Motor City. The big Chrysler 300 sedan is better-known and easily recognized, but it's made in Canada so wouldn't have fit the ad's theme.
The 200 and Avenger date back to 2006. Chrysler Group has sold 136,033 of the two, combined, the first half this year, according to Autodata. Toyota Camry sales the same period: 207,626; Honda Accord, 186,860; Ford Fusion, 161,146.