Holy Ricardo Montalban, what a difference an ad campaign makes.
The Chrysler 200 sedan was the leading seller among Chrysler brand vehicles in May. That's right: The vehicle formerly known as the Sebring -- the much-maligned Sebring -- last month outsold the brand's perennial sales leader, the Town & Country minivan.
Chrysler's now-famous Super Bowl ad, featuring the 200, rapper Eminem and a new slogan, "Imported from Detroit," has worked wonders for the car's image.
But the 200's resurrection from near oblivion wasn't accomplished with marketing sizzle alone. Beyond the ad campaign and new name, there's steak as well: a new interior, a retuned suspension and a new V-6 engine.
The result is a car many customers don't recognize as a reworked version of a dismal failure. The Sebring was dead on arrival when it appeared in 2006 as a 2007 model. At the time, critics panned its Ugly Duckling looks, hard-plastic interior and lack of driving refinement.
Consumer Reports has described the Sebring and its Dodge Avenger sibling as "poster children for automotive underachievement," cars that finished near the bottom of the magazine's ratings.
Consumer Reports recently bought a 200. In a March 18 posting, blogger Tom Mutchler wrote: "Although formal testing has not begun, the 200 makes a much better impression than the Sebring. But the real question is, should you buy one instead of a Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, or Ford Fusion or ... well, the list goes on. And on. It's one thing to make a good advertisement. It's another thing to build a good car."
Chrysler sold 7,098 200s in May. The last time the Sebring racked up those kinds of numbers was May 2008, with 7,124.
But the numbers also show just how far Chrysler still has to go to become a player in the industry's most hotly contested segment. Category leaders such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata sold three times as many cars as the 200 did in May. And the perennial segment-leading Toyota Camry and Honda Accord will bounce back from their earthquake-induced woes.
Chrysler dealers are happy just to be back in the mid-sized sedan conversation. Tom Miller, president of Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge- Ram in Greenwood, Ind., says customers usually mention the 200 commercials.
"'Imported from Detroit,' that was a home run," he says.
Miller can't get enough 200s. He has sold 20 this year, compared with seven Sebrings for the same period a year ago.
"Our supply is very limited at this point," he says.
"Back in the day, Chrysler was known for their interiors. You go back to the days of the Fifth Avenue and the Cordoba, the interiors were so plush compared to the other brands. Chrysler got away from that, but now they've seen the light."