Some Sticking with Chrysler, Others Skeptical

By: John Porretto AP
By: John Porretto AP

HOUSTON (AP) - The stalwart. The bargain-hunter. The skeptic. As Chrysler dealers across America try to sell vehicles with the auto manufacturer in bankruptcy, they're meeting different types of customers: loyalists who aren't fazed by the troubles, those simply
seeking the best deal in a bad economy, and some who are willing to
look, but aren't sold on the company's prospects.

"People hear the word bankruptcy and it makes them nervous," said Richard Engel, a Chrysler dealer in Wyckoff, N.J. "We just hope it doesn't scare too many people away."

Chrysler, the nation's third-largest automaker behind General Motors and Ford, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday after months of surviving on government loans. The company hopes to emerge in as little as 30 days, allied with Italian automaker Fiat to build leaner, cleaner cars.

Some customers who spoke to the Associated Press in recent days said they were encouraged by President Barack Obama's pledge that
the government will back warranties issued by Chrysler - an attempt
to reassure consumers their purchases will be protected even if the
company fails.

Others say the government's backing is a plus, but that survival will be tough in today's ultra-competitive car market.

It's hard to say, yet, if the bankruptcy will slow Chrysler's sales even more, or if bargain-hungry drivers will see the company's straits as an opportunity. Some dealers said they saw better-than-average traffic over the weekend, while others said it was slow.

Looking farther out, dealers say they're not sure what the coming months hold.

For now, though, they'd all love to have a client like Donald Powell. The pastor of East Houston Trinity Walk of Faith Ministries bought his fourth vehicle from River Oaks Chrysler-Jeep in Houston a few weeks ago, a silver, 2009 Chrysler 300 he calls his "baby Bentley."

Powell, 59, even serves as an adjunct salesman: He was back at the dealership Saturday to discuss potential purchases by four of his parishioners.

"It wouldn't matter to me whether President Obama is backing these cars or not," said Powell, sitting in general manager Alan Helfman's office. "I believe in Chrysler, and I believe in the Helfmans."

Like other automakers, Chrysler - whose brands include Jeep and Dodge - has used cash rebates, zero-percent financing and other
incentives to attract buyers.

For some, a good deal on a new car trumped the possibility that Chrysler may not survive.

Rebecca Jeffries wasn't even looking to buy when she went for an oil change Friday at Day's Baum Boulevard Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep in
Pittsburgh.

The 66-year-old computer-company clerk has always loved the looks of Chrysler's Crossfire convertible, but the $40,000-plus tab was out of her price range. Not these days. When a sales representative made her a deal for $27,900, Jeffries said so long to her Sebring sedan and drove off in a new silver sports car.

Jeffries acknowledged a little anxiety about the warranty - even with the government's backing - but said "it looks like I'm getting a good deal here."

"If they want to get rid of it, I'll take it," she said. Michael Del Donno and Natalia del Pozo of Humble, Texas, had been shopping for a new vehicle for weeks before buying a 2009 Jeep Patriot on Saturday morning at Deerbrook Forest Chrysler-Jeep in employee-pricing discount, which can knock several thousand off the sticker price.

Chrysler's Chapter 11 filing and hopes for a quick reorganization actually prompted the purchase, del Pozo said.

"We really liked the vehicle, and we weren't sure these incentives would be around once they emerge from bankruptcy," she said.

Not everyone is so optimistic, and that's not surprising given the state of the automotive industry. Overall U.S. auto sales fell 34 percent in April from a year earlier, and Chrysler had the worst showing among Detroit's Big Three, down 48 percent.

Paul O'Dell was checking out a new Chrysler Pacifica on Saturday at Balzekas Motor Sales Inc., a Chrysler dealership on Chicago's southwest side. The retired truck driver has been looking for a bigger vehicle to replace his Chevrolet HHR, but the deals just aren't enticing enough.

"Right now to me, all cars are too expensive," O'Dell said.

Cody Nelson, a Pittsburgh dentist looking at a Chrysler Town and Country minivan Saturday, said dealing with any kind of company in
bankruptcy is nerve-racking. Nelson, 30, was at Three Rivers Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge to compare prices but admitted, "I'm not sold on Chrysler."

Chrysler's roughly 3,200 dealers are trying to remain upbeat and talk the company line, but uncertainty lingers. For one thing, not everyone is going to keep their franchises and details on how the reorganized company will look have yet to emerge.

Dale Early, the owner of Deerbrook Forest Chrysler-Jeep, said keeping customers and potential buyers abreast of developments in the restructuring is vital. He has a link on his company's Web site that provides details of the bankruptcy filing and Chrysler's hopes for its alliance with Fiat.

Early said he also plans to send a recorded phone message to the
5,000 or so people in his client list, with a similar message. "I'm not afraid to sit down and discuss this with a customer, a neighbor or any other business person in the community," he said. "It's an issue. Let's deal with it."

Said Helfman, whose family has been selling cars near Rice University and Houston's affluent River Oaks neighborhood for 40 years: "I'm wistful and frenetic about the possibility of an all-new car company, one that's not mired in debt. But I'm also realistic. I don't know what the future holds. There are no assurances right now."

Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Pittsburgh and Andrew Vanacore in New York contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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