ORLANDO -- Dealers who attended the Chrysler make meeting are hunkering down, waiting for a wave of new products in the works.
They seem to be willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt that a brighter future is ahead. Chrysler engineers have been working on a line of new vehicles based on Fiat platforms. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the last vehicle to share Mercedes-Benz components, is due in May or June.
"This is an interesting franchise right now," said Paul Walser, owner of Walser Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in Hopkins, Minn. "There are a lot of good things coming, but people are wondering about the journey between now and then. It's a bit of a survival game until the new product comes.
"We're playing defense. We've got our expenses where they need to be," said Walser, who has nine other non-Chrysler franchises. "Some dealers are pretty encouraged, and others are mixed."
One of those happy with what he heard was Tom Wilson, general manager of Keffer Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in Charlotte, N.C.
"We are so encouraged about their direction that we have already drawn plans for a major facility expansion," he said.
Wilson says Chrysler needs to do a better job telling its story.
"We haven't got our message out there," he said. "We've got some good things to say. We just need to say them a little louder."
Wilson is not a fan of Chrysler's new "Minivan Pledge," which allows customers who trade in a competitor's product for a Chrysler Town & Country or Dodge Grand Caravan to turn the minivan in after 60 days if they're not satisfied.
"I think our minivan speaks for itself" without the need for such an incentive, he said.
Chrysler executives showed dealers a clip of the Dodge Super Bowl commercial, which is heavy on male themes. The company is embracing a new advertising philosophy that builds brands -- not just touts product attributes and low prices.
"The Super Bowl ad was humorous, but does it sell a lot of cars?" Minnesota dealer Walser asked.
Chuck Eddy, owner of Bob and Chuck Eddy Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in Austintown, Ohio, and Chrysler's NADA representative, said Chrysler's transition is difficult for some dealers.
"For so many years, we sold because it was a great deal" with lots of incentives, Eddy said. Now the company is trimming incentives and going to a different philosophy.
"There's less money than we've been used to," he said. "I agree with [Chrysler CEO] Sergio Marchionne's philosophy. I just don't know if it works with the product mix we've got."
Added Eddy, who sold about 1,200 new vehicles last year: "Our buyers are loyal because of the deal. My store is geared for volume."
In a dealer council meeting later in the week, the company showed retail-oriented ads that will join the brand builders.
To survive until the new products arrive, dealers need to have their fixed costs in line and make the most of their used-car and service areas, Eddy said. "It's going to be a grind for the next five months."