- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

The initial reaction has been surprisingly positive to news DaimlerChrysler will take its front-wheel-drive family of LH sedans (Chrysler 300M, LHS and Concorde and Dodge Intrepid) and make them rear-drive vehicles for the 2004 model year.

It's an eyebrow-raising idea, especially in Michigan where rear-drive and snow can create some pulse-quickening moments. The plan calls for a pair of popular concept vehicles, the muscular Dodge Charger and graceful Chrysler Hemi C convertible, to become production models. They would round out a family that would include rear-drive versions of the 300M, Intrepid and Concorde.

The high-end, slow-selling LHS is expected to be discontinued. The name could survive as a trim level on another vehicle.

The carmaker is scoring early points for its sheer willingness to take the risk. It's affirmation the former Chrysler Corp. has not been completely stifled by the merger that made it a German company. Wall Street is expected to embrace the cost-saving synergies of sharing rear-drive components with Mercedes-Benz products. Purists hail a move that takes rear-drive beyond performance and luxury cars and into the mass volumes of the family car.

Rear-wheel was the drive of choice until the forces of the 1970s knocked it into submission. Two decades ago it accounted for more than 70 percent of the market. But oil shortages, soaring gas prices and corporate fuel economy legislation paved the way for the front-wheel-drive vehicle. It was a way to downsize without sacrificing passenger space.

The industry never looked back: rear-wheel drive fell steadily, bottoming at 12 percent in 1999. But there have been growing signs of its return to favor. Europe has a large rear-drive appetite, Asia has a taste for it, and North America is rediscovering its old craving.

Today's vehicles are certainly large enough to go back. In the case of the LH sedans, the engine is already north/south, so it doesn't have to be turned.

Rear-drive for the masses is a way to stand out in today's competitive market. It speaks to image in a sea of product criticized for looking and driving alike. Mercedes has always embraced it, and been rewarded with strong sales and a reputation for ride and handling.

Some Chrysler customers will be alienated. There is a generation of car buyers who have built a comfort level around front-drive's more sedate response. Modern traction and stability control systems and snow tires will not be enough to convince some drivers to abandon the all-weather capabilities of front-drive.

To avoid a backlash and ensure the reluctant are outnumbered, the carmaker should take what has become a trial balloon and build on the strong early reviews. The time to spin is now, while opinion is still being shaped and tilting in its favor.

It's a gutsy move, no matter how you view it. What remains to be seen is whether in hindsight it proves to be brilliant or suicidal.

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