Despite losing shift, Caliber, Compass, Patriot deliver for Chrysler

Alex Gary

Chrysler’s Belvidere assembly plant was the business story of 2006 thanks to the launching of three new vehicles and the addition of two shifts and 2,000 workers, not to mention 2,000 more jobs at suppliers near the plant.

But the tide changed quickly in 2007. Production remained at or above record levels for much of the year, but buyers, for a variety of reasons, didn’t buy the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot at nearly as fast a rate as workers were turning them out.

Chrysler’s new owner, Cerberus Capital Management of New York, shuttered the plant for a couple of weeks in October and announced in November that it would convert the plant back to two shifts and eliminate nearly 1,100 of the 3,600 jobs. The cuts come Feb. 25, and even with fewer workers, the plant will remain the largest manufacturing employer in the Rock River Valley.

So two years into the Caliber, Compass, Patriot generation, it’s fair to ask whether the vehicle line that replaced the Neon can be considered a success.

Auto analysts gave the Belvidere trio a yes, with some caveats.

“There have been some very successful things about this line for Chrysler,” Alexander Edwards of San Diego-based research firm Strategic Vision said. “Caliber was very well accepted in the U.S. and we just released our annual customer delight awards for 2007, and the Jeep Patriot did very well in the small SUV range, getting higher marks from consumers than such SUVs as the (Honda) Element, (Suzuki) Gand Vitara and (Chevrolet) Equinox. Unfortunately, the Compass didn’t resonate as well with buyers initially.”

The Caliber has taken some criticism because of the fact it had 101,079 sales in the United States in its second year in the marketplace, a lower total than any year of the Dodge and Plymouth Neon, which was built in Belvidere from 1994 through 2005.

Few thought the Compass would be a top seller and it lived down to the reputation, at least in the states, with 39,491 in U.S. sales last year.

Clearly, though, it was the Patriot’s struggles that most likely led to the elimination of Belvidere’s third shift. The Patriot, which was roundly applauded by auto analysts because of its strong resemblance to the old Jeep Cherokee, had just 40,434 U.S. sales.

“There’s no doubt Chrysler had higher expectations for the Patriot,” said Catherine Madden, senior automotive analyst for Massachusetts-based market research firm Global Insight. “It’s not to say it’s a failure, but there’s a lot of information that indicated Chrysler expected it would have 100,000 in sales.”

When asked about sales, at least in the U.S., of the Belvidere trio, Chrysler officials, both under its old parent, Daimler AG, and current owner Cerberus always were quick to say the cars were selling well worldwide. And if one takes a global view, the Belvidere-made vehicles have delivered.

The combined sales total of the Caliber, Compass and Patriot worldwide was 294,888, the highest total for Belvidere-made products by nearly 40,000 going back to 1997, the last year Chrysler has worldwide sales figures in its computer databases.

The previous high in that time frame was 1998 when dealers worldwide sold 255,802 Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler Neons.

Of course, in 1986, Chrysler sold more than 303,000 Plymouth Horizons and Turismos and Dodge Omnis and Chargers in the U.S. alone. Back then Toyota, Honda and Mazda were just gaining traction in the U.S.

Interestingly, each of the current models had areas of strength. The Caliber had the highest international sales total for a Belvidere make and model ever. The Compass also did well internationally with 23 percent of its worldwide sales coming outside of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

The Patriot’s best market was Mexico, where it had nearly as many sales as the Compass and Caliber combined. In Canada, where Chrysler is the No. 2 automaker, the Patriot and Compass combined to outsell the Caliber.

Still, increasingly the name of the game in the automotive field isn’t market share it’s profitability. While dealers sold nearly 295,000 of the Belvidere trio, workers built more than 333,000.

“The combined (Caliber, Compass and Patriot) program probably eked out a profit for Chrysler this year,” Madden said. “The question now is what will Chrysler do to improve those products, because they’ve been in the market for two years and there are new products in those categories.

“There have been issues with the engines not having enough power and complaints about the plastic interiors,” Madden added. “Cutting costs is just one side of the business. Cerberus has to make cars that people want to buy, and clearly there are some areas they can improve on those vehicles. I certainly would love to find out more about what is coming.”

Assistant Business Editor Alex Gary may be reached at or at 815-987-1339.

Top 10 production years for Belvidere assembly

Year, models, production

1986, Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Omni, 335,298

2007, Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Patriot, 333,077

1984, Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Omni, 305,597

1979, Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Omni, 304,240

1980, Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Omni, 300,633

1981, Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Omni, 279,531

1985, Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Omni, 279,434

1995, Dodge and Plymouth Neon, 247,479

1994, Dodge and Plymouth Neon, 242,822

1989, Dodge Dynasty, Chrysler New Yorker, Fifth Avenue and Imperial, 239,622

Source: Chrysler LLC and Ward’s Automotive Yearbooks

Notes: Yearly production figures are complete through 1978. From 1965 through 1977, workers at the plant produced the Plymouth Fury and Dodge Monaco, which were made at multiple plants, and the Register Star doesn’t have complete Belvidere-only statistics.