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‘America’s import’ doesn’t ring true

I wish Chrysler nothing but success, but I’m already fed up with the empty braggadocio of its new advertising campaign. A widely aired commercial boasts Chrysler has world-class quality and proclaims the brand to be “America’s import.”

The first claim is untrue, as every independent study of automakers’ quality shows. The second is an insult to legions of Americans — including many at Chrysler — who worked hard for decades to return the U.S. car industry to the point that import is no longer synonymous with superior quality.

The phrase “America’s import,” with its suggestion that “import” equals “better,” feels terribly dated, a relic of the 1980s. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of hanging a pastel-hued “Miami Vice” poster on your office wall.

The Detroit Three were on their knees then, devastated by global economic upheaval. Between oil leaks and transmission failures, they struggled for years to build even marginally reliable vehicles. Any of the Detroit Three would have benefited from confusion with any foreign brand.

That was then. This is now. From Corvettes to Cadillacs, from the Ford Fusion to F-150, they build plenty of world-class vehicles.

Chrysler’s problem is that not many of them come from its factories. Consumer Reports magazine just rated Fiat Chrysler’s brands as five of the six least reliable in the auto industry. Pretending to be an import won’t fix that. Neither will implying that lousy quality is “an American thing.”

Chrysler needs to build cars as good as its boasts. Until it does, it might want to claim leadership in something other than quality.

While “America’s Import” rings false, I loved Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” ad campaign, from the opening shot driving into the city to Eminem’s finger-wagging closing statement: “This is the Motor City. This is what we do.”

“Imported from Detroit” was about being proud of where you’re from and what you do. “America’s import” sounds like a company that’s embarrassed by its roots.

Still, it takes an impressive lack of self-awareness for Chrysler to boast of being “America’s import” when two of the brand’s three vehicles — the 300 and Town & Country minivan — are built in Canada, and Chrysler is part of a multinational company based in the Netherlands that keeps a U.K. address to avoid paying U.S. taxes. A cynic might argue the inaccurate word is “America’s,” not “import.”

I can’t imagine Honda running ads in Tokyo that boast of being Japan’s import, despite the fact that the company sells more vehicles in the U.S. than in its home market.

No German brand would contemplate this. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and VW all sell far more cars outside Germany than domestically, but their battle cry is “German engineering,” regardless of where their vehicles are made and sold.

Even Fiat’s commercials are joyously Italian, despite that nation’s lack of recent automotive bragging points.

Detroiters have plenty to be proud of: the city’s role in history; its contributions to art and industry around the world; and the people and companies here today.

I miss the days when Chrysler bragged about being one of those companies, and its American roots.

Fiat Chrysler’s other brands’ ads celebrate their home and history. Dodge commercials recall the innovative Dodge brothers and their brief, riotous, Jazz Age lives. Before that, Dodge created cartoonish ads in which the founding fathers cavorted in all-American performance cars.

All those images are true to the brands’ character and heritage. “America’s import” is not. Chrysler would be wise to figure out what it really is, then give people a reason to want to be part of that.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at [email protected].


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