Dodge Tries To Strike Balance Between Muscle Cars and EVs

Stellantis’s gas-belching brand sets out all-electric timetable but lets everyone know it’s reluctant about the technology.

Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis

Stellantis has been a pioneer in the global auto business in many ways, a fast follower in some others, and like an underpowered car stuck in the mud in still others. In its move toward electrification of its product lineup, the former Fiat Chrysler unit of the new transatlantic automotive giant has become yet another type of actor: a reluctant revolutionary.

Nowhere is that more evident in how Stellantis’s Dodge brand is approaching the inevitable mandate to electrify its muscle cars. Dodge has been all about belching, gasoline-powered, ’60s-styled name plates such as Challenger and Charger since the late Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne established a strict new identity for all of the company’s brands several years ago.

But now even Dodge is being forced to bow to the forces electrifying the industry that have been responding to the success of Tesla and moving toward transformation in areas ranging from product development to manufacturing infrastructure.

“Transitions are easier when they are needs-based, not wants-based,” Dodge chief Tim Kuniskis told journalists this week. “And I’ll be honest: Electrification is kind of like the world going vegetarian, and Dodge is like a burger joint. We do one thing, and we do it really well. We’re not vegetarian yet.”

But some kale is sneaking into Dodge’s intentions. Marchionne was famously contrarian about the need and prospects for electrified vehicles and so, even until the time of his shocking death in 2018, Fiat Chrysler remained determinedly behind the electrification wave that was just starting with the success of Tesla, even as competitors such as General Motors and Ford became far more proactive. Electrification was an area where Marchionne stubbornly kept his company in the back of the pack.

At the same time, Marchionne is becoming increasingly acknowledged as a visionary in another area of huge importance for the global automotive business: capacity rationalization. For several years in the wake of Fiat’s takeover of Chrysler after the bankruptcy of the junior member of Detroit’s Big Three in 2009, Marchionne pushed for the industry to consolidate in the face of obvious global manufacturing overcapacity. He went to great lengths to try to get General Motors to team up, only to be rebuffed.

Nowadays, in the wake of developments such as last year’s combination of Fiat Chrysler with French giant PSA, and how the profitability of vehicles has risen as supply has been choked by the industry’s tenuous dependence on inadequate supplies of microchips, it’s time to acknowledge the true clarity of Marchionne’s crystal ball.

Though an accountant by training, Marchionne also was enough of a marketing expert to recognize and give free reign to the genius of Olivier Francois, a storyteller extraordinaire who remains chief marketing officer of Stellantis after spending more than a decade helping define and elevate Fiat Chrysler’s brands.

In any event, Stellantis now finally came third to the Detroit Three party for electrification, having announced in March a plan to build its first EV-battery plant, a $4-billion facility in Windsor, Ontario, in partnership with South Korea’s LG Energy. The Stellantis brain trust obviously also has observed the market success of Mustang Mach-E, the fully electric version of Ford’s classic muscle car.

So far, Dodge has said that it’s going to reveal a hybrid new version of its fabled Hornet nameplate in August, in a compact crossover vehicle that is expected to share a mechanical platform with the company’s Alfa Romeo Tonale and be built in Italy. Dodge also plans to launch a battery-electric muscle car in 2024 and plans to show an electric concept this year.

Kuniskis promised that, as Dodge navigates the path toward electrification, its products and the brand will stay true to what Stellantis marketers and product developers have so keenly and successfully created.

Dodge’s attempt to “juggle knives” in this way was on display recently when the brand conducted an online reality-TV type concept to select a new brand ambassador for a $150,000-role as its “Chief Donut Maker” for a year, during which the winner, Preston Patterson of North Carolina, will extol muscle-car virtues during appearances around the country.

At the same time, Kuniskis is pushing a new development meant to help guard dealers during the brand’s electrification, by creating an e-commerce platform for sales of Dodge’s Direct Connection factory-backed aftermarket performance products.

“Our dealers will see declines in revenues in parts and services” amid electrification of Dodge vehicles, which will have simpler designs, he said.

The brand’s approach of restrained enthusiasm for all-electrics must continue, Kuniskis said. “We could tell everyone to forget everything we told you about muscle cars for the last 50 years and [say], ‘This is what you really want,” he said. “Everyone [else] in the industry is going to be saying exactly the same thing” about their electrified vehicles. But Dodge has never won when we follow other people.”