Why do a new Neon?
That, says Joe Caddell, general product manager, Small Car Operations, Chrysler Corp.*, is the first question that needs to be answered. After all, trucks—Durangoes and Dakotas, Rams and Grand Cherokees—are all the rage, right? And let's not forget the minivan. Small cars?
The apparent popularity of bigger vehicles notwithstanding, Caddell has a simple answer to the "why Neon" question: Volume.
The small car market (think of Civics and Saturns and Escorts...and Neons) is the second largest segment in the U.S.: 2.2 million units. And the projection is that in calendar year 2000, the small car market will represent 28% of the total car market.
Put another way: why not do a Neon?
It might be something of an exaggeration to describe the Neon, which was launched in 1993, as Rodney Dangerfield. Image-wise, the Neon—remember the "Hi" ads?—started out life as quirkier; an old Imperial is more Rodney-like.
But let's face it: in a company that makes things like the 300M (and we don't even have to go to the Daimler part of the line-up to start rolling out posh models), the Neon might thought to be something that would be readily overlooked.
But there's an aspect that's worth noting. Joe Caddell says that the Neon—"We have continued to improve it during the past five years"—has the lowest warranty cost of any of the vehicles Chrysler (remember that Neon was launched and the 2000 Neon developed under that corporate flag) builds.
That's nothing to sniff at.
All along the learning curve.
Caddell says they've been working on the Neon for 10 years. That includes the development time for the first one; the building of the first generation; continuous improvement; and the development of this next-generation vehicle. (The power-train is pretty much the only carryover from the previous vehicle. And even the powertrain has been improved with new air induction and intake manifold systems, exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover, and timing belt cover.)
They've gotten faster during this time. The original Neon took 31 months to develop. The 2000 Neon required just 28 months. (And represents an investment of $703-million.)
A key to speedier development: Lots of digital technology:
* CATIA—of course. Cindy Hess, general manager of Small Car Platform Engineering, says that the entire development process—design, engineering, and manufacturing, both internally and with suppliers—made use of this CAD/CAE/CAM tool.
* VR—as in "virtual reality." This technology is sometimes thought to be more of a design or marketing tool. But for the 2000 Neon, engineers used VR for evaluation purposes.
* DMA—Digital Modeling Assembly. Once you have the pieces designed, the question is whether they'll go together as planned. So, prior to building a prototype with metal, plastic, rubber, glass, etc., they did it with digits in a computer. Hess says that Chrysler is the first U.S. automaker to have done this.
The Neon isn't what it once was. It's bigger. The length of the 2000 Neon is up by 2.6 in.; the wheel base 1.0 in.; the overall width 0.2 in.; the track up 0.6 in.; and the ground clearance is raised 0.3 in. Chrysler vehicle development engineers cranked up a Cray supercomputer and came up with an array of all new sheet metal panels (hood, fenders, deck lid, roof, quarter panels) and underpinnings that provide an increase in bending stiffness of 37% compared to the first-generation Neon and an increase in torsional stiffness of 26%.
Complexity, says Dennis Pawley, executive vice president of Manufacturing, DaimlerChrysler**, and member of the Board of Management, is something that's better to avoid. Simplicity is better. The 2000 Neon is simpler than its predecessor in some major ways.
For one thing, the previous models had been built in two plants: Belvidere, IL, and Toluca, Mexico. The 2000 Neon is being built in just one: Belvidere. This provides a capacity of 260,000 units.
"From a launch standpoint," observes Pawley, "this allows us to concentrate our resources. This gives us the opportunity to have a faster launch with higher quality." (Pawley has been determined in all product launches—of which there have been plenty in recent years—to base the launch curves more on the metric of quality than on calendar dates.)
So when the tooling development and training was underway, the focus was on the people at one facility, which is highly advantageous from the standpoint of getting them ready to go. Initially, people from Belvidere were brought to the Pilot Plant in the Chrysler Technology Center. Then, as early in the cycle as was practical, the car was brought to the assembly plant. "There's more that you can do with real people at the real place in real time," Cindy Hess observes. Simulations are helpful and useful. But getting to the actual place with the actual product is vital. (One of the Japanese terms that's sometimes heard with regard to production improvement is gemba, which essentially means the place where things are happening. One of the ways of looking at what they did for the 2000 Neon was to go to the gemba ASAP.)
Additionally, the 2000 Neon is available as a four-door only. The coupe has been dropped. And there are two trim levels with reduced options, thereby helping simplify assembly operations in Belvidere. (In advertising parlance, there's the "well-equipped" D package and the "fully equipped" G package—and you can almost hear bespeckled actor Edward Hermann saying it.)
And Belvidere is the focus of the activities for the vehicle. The plant in Mexico that had been also producing the Neon is getting another vehicle (a Neon-based sport utility vehicle is rumored to be going to Toluca).
Another thing about complexity.
"Once you have a complex vehicle launched you can build it with high quality and high productivity as you can other vehicles," Pawley notes. But he points out that you don't want to have to do a complex vehicle as you can avoid it. Neon isn't complex.
Agents for quality.
Bonita Coleman-Webb, Marketing Plans manager, says that when the planning was being done to determine how the 2000 Neon will be positioned in the market, even manufacturing was considered. Manufacturing is described as the "Agent for a Quality Build."
She points out that this isn't just a rhetorical flourish. For one thing, there is a new philosophy in the plant: 100% team involvement. And that involvement came early in the program so that there was the aforementioned real-life, on-line experience.
Using manufacturing as a competitive advantage is something that more companies should take into account.
It's good to be green.
Joe Caddell says that in the "must" column so far as car buyers are concerned are items including quality, reliability, safety, and affordability. In the "want" column there are fun to drive, stylish interior, and attractive interior.
And for some people, being environmentally correct is a good thing. However, much of the environmental friendliness of the 2000 Neon is something that is transparent to most people because it happens in the Neon factory or at the factories of suppliers..
That is, to be sure, the ULEV and LEV engine availability will be touted, along with the freon-free air conditioning. Maybe even the asbestos-free brakes might make it into the product brochure.
But there are some other key factors. The Belvidere plant people are applying waterborne paint. Some of the fascias have molded-in color, so there are no paint emissions for them. The door water shields are produced with a material derived from recycled soda bottles. And the containers used to ship parts into the assembly plant are 98% returnable.
What they'll be selling.
"Digitally conceived, meticulously appointed, the new Neon redefines conventional thinking." The first two are certainly correct. You can decide for yourself about whether there will be a change in thinking.
The greatest area of carryover from the previous vehicle is the 2.0-liter SOHC engine, but here there have been plenty of modifications, including a new air induction and intake manifold system, new exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover, and timing head cover for quieter engine operation. The engines for the Neon are produced in the Trenton Engine Plant (Michigan) and Saltillo Engine (Mexico).
The 2000 Neon is being produced at the Belvidere Assembly Plant, which has a capacity of 260,000 units. Overall, the vehicle is bigger than the previous generation vehicle. And there have been some architectural modifications-such as a full-frame door (note the sheet metal wrapping around the top of the glass). The body-side is a single stamping to help enhance fit and finish.
*The titles of the people are what they were when they were talked to us for this article.
**On January 31, 1999, Pawley will be retiring from DaimlerChrysler. When announcing Pawley's retirement, Robert J. Eaton, chairman, DaimlerChrysler, said, "He's the ultimate manufacturing leader. His ability to lead change is unparalleled in today's manufacturing environment."