Monday, June 22, 2009

Chrysler's Italian Americans

There is a misconception that Fiat now owns Chrysler. That is not entirely true. Fiat bought a 20% stake in Chrysler with the option to own as much as 49%. Sergio Marchionne, Fiat's chief executive does not seem intent on assimilating Chrysler like Daimler did, leaving it an empty shell that churned out unreliable products made from obsolete Mercedes parts. Instead, Marchionne seems to want to use Chrysler as a channel to return Fiat to the US market. For years Fiat has teased us with rumors of a return to our shores. But except for the unattainable, $265,000 Alfa Romeo 8c, and high end exotics from Ferrari and Maserati, all of which fall under the corporate umbrella, Fiat been as successful cracking the US market as a reality-show contestant at finding true love.

All that may change. If Fiat is able to use Chrysler's scaled down dealer network to introduce the Fiat 500, Punto, and Bravo pictured above, they would find a receptive market. Certainly they could do no worse than Chrysler's current lineup of duds. Fiat could slap Dodge Ram badges on the Bravo, fit it with a crosshair grille, and as long as they didn't call it the Avenger, it would be a hit.

The Panda, which includes a 4x4 version, would make a far better small Jeep than the Compass. Marchionne has expressed a desire to better
position the Jeep brand in the global market. Jeeps have a solid image in many parts of the world. If they were able to take the beaches at Normandy, a frontal assault on markets in Asia and South America could prove winnable as well. With the world looking at America more favorably these days, a global branding strategy could relaunch Jeep in the same spectacular fashion Iron Man revived the career of Robert Downey Jr.

More importantly, Fiat seems intent on not just utilizing Chrysler's dealer network, but their factories as well. That means more jobs in the US. Even the most ardent red-stater, who drives a pickup truck complete with a gun-rack and U.A.W. bumper sticker, has to give that idea a thumbs up. Speaking of trucks, if the distribution pipeline goes both ways, I'm sure more than a few Italians would buy the Dodge Ram SRT-10. In a country rife with exotic cars, there would be something uniquely absurd about owning a truck that can haul a half ton payload and haul ass like a Lamborghini.

If it seems like I'm rooting for the Fiat-Chrysler merger, I am. My family has owned a number of Chryslers. My grandfather owned nothing but Plymouth Furies and big Dodges the last twenty-five years of his life. My parents drove a Valiant on their honeymoon and owned a Dodge Demon of all things. I drove a Dodge Coronet in high school and owned a LeBaron convertible. Most of these cars were a bit rough around the edges but were generally honest, reliable vehicles. In the last few years, I've driven the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Caliber. The 300 was one of the few cars that is comfortable, a joy to drive, turns heads, and can haul a weeks worth of luggage for a family of four. The Caliber with its silly name, was well thought out but poorly executed. It just wasn't of the same... err... caliber as the other small cars in it's class.

The idea of Fiat bailing out Chrysler isn't as preposterous as it first seems. This isn't your Uncle Tony's Fiat from twenty-five years ago. Marchionne, who has a dual Canadian-Italian citizenship, knows something about turning around companies. In 2005 he took over a hemorrhaging Fiat and won a nice divorce settlement from GM. In short order he made the company profitable with a top-down overhaul and introduced new products people wanted to buy. In a sense, it's history repeating itself. Thirty years ago another Italian took over Chrysler. He too quickly made the company profitable with a top-down overhaul and introduced new products people wanted to buy. Only then, the chairman was an Italian-American named Lee Iaccoca.

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