As a reader of The Autopian, I can appreciate what it stands for; in part, bringing life to the worthless crapcans that were once rightfully neglected when new and then revived with passionate enthusiasm. Not every vehicle rolling off the production line will set hearts on fire – at least not right away. Maybe with time, age will bring the deliciousness of a fine wine.
Take David’s BMW i3 for instance. It was an early expedition into the world of EVs at the same time the Tesla Model S hogged all the attention. Years later, a replacement powertrain battery gives the initially unpopular compact a second lease of life that outperforms the EPA estimates. Holy bullfrogs! And just the other week, I learned about a very special Dodge Omni that saved DeTomaso. It definitely wasn’t my mom’s.
So there is potentially a market for bad new cars turned good when used. For instance, the recent praise for the PT Cruiser that, in my opinion, was never terrible. Just cheap.
I’ll take this point further and nominate an entire lineup of Chrysler cars released toward the end of the 2000s. This was the result of a corporate merger that bit off more than it could chew followed by a recession.
[Editor’s Note: For the record, while I think some bailout-era Chryslers can be reliable and cheap transportation today, I still think most are marginal. Hell, even the Wrangler (that 3.8 and four-speed auto!) somehow sucked during that era, and that’s about as easy a product to get right as it gets! Anyway, I’m happy to have differing opinions on this site, so Tyler, take it away! -DT].
The year is 2006. I’m at a Dodge dealership in Glendale, Arizona that’s a suburb of Phoenix. My dad is in the process of purchasing a brand new Ram 2500 Super Duty. I wander about the lit showroom until I stop at a poster. It shows the back end of a Caliber with the trunk open. A pair of speakers hang from the liftgate. The car sits atop the platform of a concert stage overlooking a blurred audience.
I decided at 10 years old that was the car for me. Fortunately, I grew up to know better. But the Caliber was an early sign of consequences in the midst of a dark period for Chrysler.
I suspect someone in Dodge’s marketing department was feeling the gloom, which makes this ad funny to look back on:
In 1998, Daimler entered into a “merger of equals” with Chrysler in hopes of elevating its status with American buyers. It was only nine years later that it would cut losses and sell off its shares to an equity firm.
Then-Chief Executive of DaimlerChrysler Dieter Zetsche had this to say, according to the New York Times:
Daimler (he said) was unable to exploit the combination of its highly-engineered Mercedes-Benz luxury cars with the mass-market vehicles of Chrysler, because U.S. motorists could not, or would not, pay a premium for a Chrysler equipped with Mercedes technology.
In other words, a German-priced automobile with an American badge wasn’t the way forward. Look no further than sales of the Chrysler Crossfire—which would be about $50,000 in today’s dollars—to tell you why.
When it became apparent this was the case, the company had to conjure a new plan on the spot to ensure the cash flow kept coming in. This is where Chrysler’s on-again, off-again relationship with Mitsubishi came back in.
The partnership began as a way for Dodge to sell economical cars in the late 1960s, and for Mitsubishi to arrive in the United States. Browse through the classics classifieds and you’ll see cars with names like Dodge Colt or Chrysler Galant often mixing American with Japanese roots in (more or less) equal harmony. These were called captive imports, and versions of this still exist today.
It was never a full stake of ownership for either party but time and time again over the next 30 years or so prior to the Daimler merger, it brought us cars like the Dodge Stealth: essentially a reskinned Mitsubishi 3000GT in the 1990s.
A new platform was co-developed to support compact cars for both brands. Known as the GS platform, Mitsubishi would make use of it starting in 2006 while the Dodge Caliber was the first American model to take advantage of it. It would be far from the last.
In fact, the way Chrysler saw it, it could spin off multiple variations of the GS platform to build its own compact cars. These would adopt new chassis codes to carry the brand through one of American car manufacturing’s bleakest periods.
I shall declare this clique as the Chrysler Bailout cars. It resulted in the following to be produced:
- Chrysler Sebring/200 (JS platform)
- Dodge Avenger (JS)
- Dodge Caliber (PM)
- Dodge Journey (JC49)
- Jeep Compass (MK49)
- Jeep Patriot (MK74)
These may present different choices for varying buyers on a budget looking for value but as a unit, each of these were critically panned when new on account of meager powertrains and hard plastics that plagued interior quality.
Car and Driver called the 2008 Avenger’s interior “‘rental-grade.”’ (That’s never a compliment, to be clear.) CNET gave the 2011 200 a middling score of 5.0 out of 10 on account of its interior quality. Google each of these models from when they were new between 2007 and 2011, and you’ll see almost unanimous verdicts of questionable value, underwhelming engines, and interior quality that is next to nothing.
Of course, not every publication reviews cars the same. MotorWeek will find the good in just about every vehicle John Davis gets his hands on:
So perhaps then, the key is just to give this compact lineup time and maybe, just maybe, opinions would mellow. Take this Car and Driver review of a 2016 Journey for instance, which noted that roughly 100,000 units have been moved in previous years consecutively. And the V6-equipped Journey presented competitive stats even if they weren’t class-leading. It was still on the receiving end of the bargain scale.
And then the entire compact lineup received a second lifeline as a result of a fresh Fiat takeover, which ushered in an era of fresh capital, improved interior materials and updated powertrains. The Fiat-derived cars like the Dodge Dart came later, but until then, the Chrysler Bailout cars got some needed updates.
This gave ammunition to Chrysler’s marketing division, who pushed out new stuff to reflect this attitude. You can get the picture:
For the Dodge Avenger, Dodge Journey, and the Chrysler 200, that also meant the addition of the new 3.6-liter V6 dubbed Pentastar. (Editor’s note: Actually a pretty good six-cylinder engine, then and now. -PG) Suddenly, your choices for a new purchase improved and you felt less like you were driving something rental-grade.
Remember, the designs of this lineup dated back to the mid-2000s so there was no room for safety tech such as lane departure warning and blindspot warning; common standard equipment today. So the prices they demanded when new were considerably less as well. During most of their production cycles, MSRP rarely demanded more than $30,000.
The exception was the most expensive Dodge Journey and Chrysler 200 convertible equipped with the metal hardtop and aforementioned V6. These used a new six-speed automatic that was reportedly a marked improvement over the old slushbox.
The Jeep Compass and Patriot siblings got updated four-cylinder engines and eventually, a CVT option became available. But over the course of their production runs, a six-speed manual was available and you could equip with either front- or all-wheel-drive. Seeing the number of mechanical options these two had, it’s a good idea to look up which Jeep Patriot models were good and which Jeep Compasses to avoid.
By most accounts, the Chrysler Bailout cars were less than impressive. But Chrysler from that era showed more signs of ambition than people give it credit for today, even if a tough economy and shifting ownership stakes meant it didn’t work out.
Take the Ram trucks, Dodge Charger sedan and, of course, the staple minivans. It planned a roadster to rival the Miata, the Dodge Demon concept (before that name was reattached to the muscle cars later) that was even drivable. And it supposedly had an enticing line of—get this—electric vehicles in the works, including Jeeps and a minivan. This became known as the Environment and New Vehicles division, or ENVI for short. The potential looked like this:
An offering in every vehicle size turning away fossil fuels? Looks like something you’d see today, right? How appetizing! I spy a Dodge-branded Lotus Europa, as well as familiar faces in the Jeep Wrangler, Patriot, and Chrysler Town & Country. The designs weren’t evolutionary but the tech showcase was key.
There’s a caveat though, because details are scarce. MotorTrend reports that the company’s EV goals in 2009 targeted a range of 400 miles of range for the passenger cars—better than even the best EVs today, but likely impossible with the battery tech at the time.
The Lotus Europa-bodied Dodge Circuit EV was aiming for between 150 and 200 miles of range. At the time, they were reportedly on the lookout for battery suppliers to provide lithium-ion units that could meet their optimistic needs. It talks a big game in this press release, which laid out its hopes of putting half a million EVs on the road by 2013 and how the ENVI team “has access to the vast resources within Chrysler to allow the rapid proliferation of electric-drive vehicles.”
Unfortunately, that lineup never happened; today, the ENVI cars are written off as part of a play for bailout money, back when the U.S. automakers were being trashed left and right for not being as “green” as the Japanese or Koreans. V8-powered Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, anyone?
I’d be very curious to talk to someone behind the ENVI project. The engineers disbanded once the Chrysler brand was absorbed in the Fiat merger, which leaves me wondering how they calculated that 400 miles of range was feasible back then. (Editor’s Note: Get in touch if you know anything! -PG)
But the point is, the Chrysler Bailout era was better than you may think. Initially a bargain lineup that was critically panned in the industry, these models would serve as stalemates as they oversaw the company transfer once again to new ownership.
Although the critical feedback was almost unanimously panned, consumers had rosier experiences. Presumably, they bought into the fact that the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 twins scored consistently well in IIHS crash testing, with the latter notching a Top Safety Pick-plus nod in 2013.
Even today, Consumer Reports doesn’t have a lot of love for these cars, ranking them too low to be “recommended” even into the 2010s. On the other hand, owner testimonials show there is a lot of love for these despite issues that may arise, such as these Edmunds reviews that detailed the overall ownership experience of a 2013 200. Diving in a rabbit hole of consumer reviews between all the models and noting the ones that kept theirs for years, the majority rate their cars between 4 and 5 out of 5.
You’ll know they’re genuine when they detail the breakdowns at how many miles and the cost to fix, along with internet guidance of where to find the parts needed. This and taking into account that a lot of the critiques came around when they were new, means when they lose their shine, suddenly they’re pre-owned darlings.
Not Bad Today If You Need A Ride
Look, the average transaction price to purchase new rose to a shade under $50,000 by year’s end in 2022. On the used side, the average per state was at least $31,000. This far into 2023, prices are mellowing but only slightly. So you may have to get creative in order to place you in the right car that wasn’t your first choice. What I present to you is an entire lineup of solutions to keep you on the road.
Scour the classifieds and you will find low-mileage examples of each of the Bailout cars if you look hard enough.
There are examples littered like this on the internet. Take this 2016 Compass equipped with a six-speed manual for sale in California. It’s a clean-title car with just 58k miles. I doubt it will pop up in Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness so I’ll give it an honorable mention here.
The odds of finding a compact Chrysler product with less than 100,000 miles for less than five figures are high. Parts are available since the compact lineup shares powertrain components. You should have no problem sourcing, especially for a Dodge Journey. Production lasted 11 years until 2020.
Ah yes, the question that the average reader will ask here, why shouldn’t I get something from Honda or Toyota lines with that legendary reliability for the same money? Well, the answer I have for you, good reader, is that your Japanese compact will likely have 200,000 miles. Any lower miles and you’re looking at a 2009 hubcapped Corolla that’ll command 5 figures on Craigslist.
So yes, the Chrysler Bailout cars we once reviled were witnesses to a turning point in what was the company’s lowest moment, and are now acceptable to society, almost to the point of goodness. And while they didn’t come to fruition, Chrysler’s plans from that era showed it wanted to be more than it was at the time. And that EV lineup alone feels almost exactly like what the automakers want to do today, just 15 years or so premature.
If you need one more convincing argument, my dad’s still driving around in the 2006 Ram Super Duty he bought all those years ago, getting ready to tick over 200,000 miles.
Tyler is a customer service professional whose life has been upended by cars somehow. When he didn’t write about them, he sold them. When he didn’t sell them, he read about them. Automotive lore discussion, anyone? If nothing else, he’s the owner of two Mazdas near and dear to his heart (including a Miata RF, of course). Support his website @ tygermind.com and socials at @tygermind.