By Stuart Schwartzapfel
Chrysler is still mulling over the fate of this year’s Imperial concept car shown at the North American International Auto Show in January. A decision is expected soon and, if greenlighted as a production model, the Imperial would likely begin manufacture in early '09 as a 2010 model.
First introduced in 1926, Imperial is hardly a new name for Chrysler. The marque sought to be synonymous with luxury and was Chrysler’s flagship for much of the company’s history. For inspiration, the designers of the modern-day Imperial looked not only to the classic Imperials of the 1930s and 1950s but also to more recent concept cars such as the 1998 Chrysler Chronos and 2005 Chrysler Firepower.
The Imperial Concept is a luxury rear-wheel-drive vehicle built on the same LX platform as the Chrysler 300. But the massive Imperial is nearly a foot and a half longer than the 300, and six inches taller. Imperial’s 123-in. wheelbase rolls around on 22-in. chrome wheels. The car presents "a six-figure image but at a much lower price,” according to Tom Tremont, vice-president of advanced vehicle design for Chrysler.
The Imperial features suicide-style doors, which provide a spacious opening into the opulent interior of handcrafted leather, California burlwood, and satin-finished aluminum. Product designer Nick Malachowski shaped the Imperial's interior, using a matte finish for the extensive wood trim and going easy on the brightwork. "When it comes to chrome, holding back can be a good thing," he says. The matte wood better reflects the ambient lighting that's tucked behind many of the interior trim pieces. The lack of flash inside is more than compensated for with the 22-in. wheels and massive chrome grille.
The long hood covering the powerful Hemi V8 engine is dominated by an upright radiator and horizontal grille. Brushed and polished aluminum pods are said to evoke the free-standing headlamps of past models. Circular LED taillights with floating outer rings pay homage to the "gun sight" taillight look of early 1960s Imperials. The roofline is pulled rearward to enlarge the cabin and to create a strong profile.
On first glance, Imperial’s design seems to knock off Rolls-Royce’s Phantom. Design Director Brandon Faurote says he doesn't mind comparisons with the $360,000 Rolls, "but the Imperial has softer exterior shapes compared to the Phantom's long straight lines. The suicide doors are the same but we did that to show off the interior more than anything else,” says Faurote.
If Chrysler gives the boulevard-cruising Imperial the production thumbs-up, likely competitors would be Cadillac’s DTS and Lincoln’s Town Car. Price range would fall somewhere in the $40,000 neighborhood.
The Verdict:The Imperial should not move past its current concept status. Garish and Rolls-Royce-mimicking looks aside, the Imperial really makes no sense from a product-positioning standpoint. Let’s not forget that the Chrysler 300, on which this concept is based, is due for a long wheelbase (LWB) version in the not-too-distant future. Where would Imperial slot, once this LWB 300 comes to market? Plus, the 300C with the Hemi and most option boxes checked off already runs past $40,000.
Schwartzapfel, a certified car freak, writes BusinessWeek.com's Concept of the Week column. He has studied the automotive marketplace and worked as an advertising/marketing strategist for major manufacturers. He does not write about any car brands for which he currently works.