Two ignored Dodges quietly roll away

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Two of the most heavily "Daimler-ized" vehicles in Chrysler Group's product portfolio rolled off their respective assembly lines for the final time this month.

Of the production deaths of the Dodge Nitro SUV and the compact hatchback Dodge Caliber, allow me to paraphrase a familiar saw:

"Don't let the door hit you in the hatchback on the way out."

Even though they were assembled two states apart, in Ohio and Illinois, respectively, and were different in size and segment, the Nitro and Caliber shared more than just a brand. Both seemed to be a compendium of spare plastic parts, never really finding a sales niche compared with their respective linemates and derided as uncompetitive by reviewers and executives alike.

Don't get me wrong: In their time, and under Chrysler's former German overlords-slash-owners, both the Nitro and Caliber filled their intended purpose -- to push total volume of each plant above the level deemed necessary to boost productivity. Both were also aimed squarely at women, seeking to boost what in 2006 was Dodge's atrocious brand attraction among female buyers.

The problem was that these poster children for Daimler rebadging didn't really work on their own merits and didn't receive the updating they desperately needed, leaving dealers to try and sell product that had limited purpose.

The Nitro, built at Chrysler's Toledo North Assembly plant, actually debuted ahead of its linemate, the Jeep Liberty, and on the occasional month over its five-year run, even outsold the Jeep.

But while the Liberty continued to evolve and even improve as an SUV, the Nitro languished with an underpowered engine and an uncompetitive four-wheel-drive system. Ralph Gilles, now head of Chrysler Group's new SRT brand, tried to intervene by "re-contenting" the de-contented Nitro during the 2010 model year, but by then it may have been too late.

Monthly sales of the Nitro reached their zenith in March 2007, at 7,532 units, but fell to a miserable low of 1,115 units in July 2009. Chrysler sold 1,661 Nitros last month.

A similar scenario played out with the Caliber, which shared its powertrain and production with the Jeep Patriot and Compass in Belvidere, Ill. Like the Nitro, the Caliber appeared in showrooms before its two Jeep linemates in 2006 and initially received an enthusiastic welcome.

As time marched on, the Caliber began to show its age and didn't receive a product intervention from Chrysler, which was already working on its replacement: the 2013 Dodge Dart, which debuts next month at the Detroit auto show.

The Caliber's monthly sales swing was even more dramatic than the Nitro's. In May 2008, Chrysler sold 12,856 units of the Caliber, but sales fell to just 412 units in November 2009. Chrysler sold 1,202 Calibers last month.

Few will shed tears over the departure of the Caliber and Nitro from Chrysler's portfolio, especially considering that the automaker will soon have better replacements to offer in their place.

Until then, it's best to simply say auf wiedersehen to these two Dodges while we wait to wish benvenuto to their respective Italian-inspired replacements.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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