Hot Wheels

Flashy sedan has the cool crowd in Chrysler's hip pocket.

August 02, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Ron Riccitelli is not supposed to be driving a four-door sedan.

A 26-year-old mortgage broker from Canton, Riccitelli has driven Toyota Supras and Mazda RX-7s. Last month, he was looking to trade up to a Cadillac Escalade or a Hummer H3, two road-clearing monsters that scream conspicuous consumption. But he didn't. Instead, he bought a Chrysler.

"It's flashy and it looks like it's worth a ton of money," Riccitelli says of his new Chrysler 300C, which he got in a creamy shade called Cool Vanilla. "It just hit me. It looks like a cartoon car in a way, but at the same time it has that luxury feel to it."

Chrysler says the 300 was designed to evoke memories of Sunday afternoon drives to grandmother's house. Instead, it has become the hot car for the hip-hop community, finding a place in videos by rappers 50 Cent and G-Unit and in the driveways of celebrities like Snoop Dogg.

In turn, young adults and even teenagers are snapping up the cars faster than Chrysler can make them - signaling the power of hip-hop artists to make a brand or product an instant must-have.

The trend-setting rapper and actor Snoop Dogg got his new 300 after leaving a voice mail message for a Chrysler executive - a message conveniently leaked to the Detroit News:

"Yo, what up? This is big Snoop Dogg, trying to put these new legs down for this new 300C," the rapper said. "What I gotta do to get that brand new 300 up outta you? Get back in touch with my nephew so you can make it happen, then it's official like a referee's whistle. If you want this car to blow, give it to me. This is Snoop Dogg. Preach!"

Snoop isn't the only one begging for the car. From its launch in April to the end of July, Chrysler sold as many 300s as it expected to sell all year. (The company would not provide exact sales figures.) Buyers are waiting two months for the cars to come in. Others have followed delivery trucks to dealerships and bought the cars straight off the truck, dealers say.

"When they get here, their life expectancy is three to four hours," says Frank Roberts, sales manager at Tate Chrysler in Glen Burnie. "This is a car that really appeals to the masses. You don't need a garage for it, and it's not 70 grand. I've got plenty of people waiting."

Dealers say buyers of the 300 cross a broad range of ages and ethnicities but it is the urban market that is giving the car its buzz. "Urban market" used to be a euphemism for young African-Americans. But it now refers more broadly to a lifestyle and sensibility that includes minorities as well as yuppified city dwellers, and its tastemakers range from Snoop Dogg to Sarah Jessica Parker's character on Sex and the City.

"It's the market the masses look to to find out what's next," says Jameel Spencer, who co-founded Blue Flame Marketing in New York with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and specializes in the urban market. Spencer says he's a "big fan" of the 300.

"For a long time in this space, it was all about the high-end and spending lots of money," he says. "That still reigns true, but what's next is having a fashion sensibility, having some type of cachet, at a price point."

One of the more enticing factors of the 300 is its price: It starts at $23,595, making it competitive with plain vanilla sedans like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. But unlike those cars, you can get a V-8 Hemi engine in the 300, which will take you from 0-60 mph in about six seconds and bump the price beyond $33,000.

Even so, compared to the Hummer and Escalade, which both start around $52,000, the Chrysler is a bargain.

"I feel like I'm Sean Combs sitting behind the wheel of this car, and I don't have to take a second mortgage on my home to afford it," Spencer says. "It's a beautiful car and it's at a price point that really makes sense for people who want to have that level of cachet."

But it's not price alone. Key to the car's success is its bold, head-snapping styling: a tall, aggressive front-end with a grille that resembles the gaping mouth of a shark, a long front hood, high door panels and chrome door handles and mirrors. Some say it looks gangster-ish. Others say it resembles a Bentley.

Chrysler has managed to market the car through popular culture - a particularly effective and economical marketing strategy, if you can pull it off. The strategy includes placing the car in TV shows and music videos and getting mention in popular songs. For years, only high-end luxury brands like Mercedes and Cadillac have enjoyed that kind of exposure.

Witness the chorus to Outkast's recent hit song "Hey Ya": "Don't want to meet your daddy/Just want you in my Caddy."

San Francisco-based marketing consultant Lucian James found that Mercedes, Lexus and Cadillac were mentioned more than 200 times in the songs that reached Billboard's Top 20 chart last year. Such references tend to help those brands in the urban market, where flashy displays of luxury are encouraged.

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