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Chrysler rides a 5-year streak

DETROIT – Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 as a weak automaker with few new cars and trucks in its pipeline, leaving many to doubt whether the company could survive – let alone boost sales and gain market share.

But for nearly five years the automaker, which has been renamed FCA US, has done just that.

Every month for the past 56 months, FCA US has sold more new cars and trucks than for the comparable month from the prior year. It’s a record the Auburn Hills automaker is proud of.

“Back in the summer of 2009, when we emerged from bankruptcy and going into 2010 … a lot of people had Fiat Chrysler completely written off,” said Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales. “And yet we continued to keep our head down.”

At the time, many analysts and competitors dismissed the automaker’s gains as somewhat expected, given how far the company’s sales fell during the recession.

Others said the sales gains were driven by big incentives. Another often-cited factor was FCA US’ dependence on fleet sales.

And while there was some truth to each of those points, those explanations don’t tell the full story.

“I think the conversation is really now starting to shift to our product,” Bigland said. “Because … when you have gone almost five years, it silences a lot of people who have alleged you have easy comparisons.”

FCA US’ share of U.S. auto sales has increased from 8.9 percent in 2009 to 12.6 percent for the first 11 months of this year.

Bigland said the automaker should get credit for a series of well-timed new or redesigned models that have proven to be popular.

The modern-looking Cherokee, which debuted in the fall of 2013, replaced the company’s boxy, gas-drinking Liberty. Its looks were roundly criticized by Jeep enthusiasts but have proven to be a hit with mainstream consumers.

Through November, consumers bought 160,793 Jeep Cherokees, putting to rest most of the complaints by enthusiasts about its design. Sales of the Jeep brand were up 43 percent over the first 11 months of the year.

Meanwhile, Ram has been sneaking up on its rivals over the past several years. Ram’s share of full-size pickup sales in the U.S. has grown from 11.6 percent in October 2009 to 22.4 percent. The gain was helped by the introduction of a redesigned Ram 1500 in 2012 and a diesel engine option introduced earlier this year.

This year, competitors have complained about Ram’s aggressive incentives. Currently, Chrysler is offering incentives that total $4,700 off of the 2014 Ram 1500 Big Horn, which starts at $30,590.

To keep the sales record going, FCA US also had to overcome some disappointing new cars.

It took the company much more time than expected to build up its dealer network and to establish its Fiat brand, which was launched in 2011. The quirky Fiat 500L launched last year provided little relief. Only 10,900 500Ls have been sold over the first 11 months of this year.

The Dodge Dart, launched in 2012, never hit the sales targets the company was aiming for. And this year, sales of the compact car have declined 1.3 percent to 76,977.

The entire auto industry has spent several years trying to figure out how Chrysler has kept its sales streak going, said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

Part of the answer, Caldwell said, is that the company has been willing to provide car loans and leases to people with sub-prime, or risky credit scores.

For the past five years the company’s gains have been helped by an automotive industry that has been rebounding and growing at a rapid rate. Next year, the rate of industry sales is expected to slow.

Next year, the company’s Ram 1500 pickup also will face much stiffer competition with Ford launching an all-new F-150 and with sales climbing for General Motors’ midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Sierra midsize pickups.

Aside from those two new crossovers, FCA US hasn’t announced any new vehicles or major model redesigns for its core brands. Generally, the automakers who introduce the most new cars and trucks have the easiest time selling more vehicles.

But Bigland has heard all of this before. A year ago, skeptics were asking him how FCA US would keep its streak going with the Chrysler 200 as the only all-new model the company had in its arsenal.

Next year, Bigland said, “I am optimistic that additional products we do have will continue … to keep us competitive in the marketplace.”