Chrysler Product Blitz Continues

The next wave of new product represents the litmus test for Chrysler’s long-term direction. By 2014, Fiat platforms will account for some 56% of the auto maker’s worldwide car volume.

Eric Mayne, Senior Editor

March 28, 2011

5 Min Read
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Expect Chrysler to announce the next-generation Jeep Liberty will share a Fiat-derived platform with a core-brand cross/utility vehicle and both will be assembled in Toledo.

The platform, known internally as C-U.S. Wide, also will shoulder CUVs for Fiat’s Alfa Romeo and Lancia brands, Ward’s learns.

“You ain’t seen nut’n yet,” a Chrysler insider says against a backdrop of pending powertrain upgrades and a frenzied push to infuse the auto maker’s pipeline with Fiat technology.

The boast comes on the heels of a frenetic 18 months, during which Chrysler, guided by executives from alliance-partner Fiat, delivered 16 new or significantly refreshed products. The achievement is more startling given the auto maker was bankrupt before the onslaught began.

But the next wave of new product is critical because it represents the litmus test for Chrysler’s long-term direction. Eighteen all-new or extensively modified vehicles are confirmed through 2014, by which time Fiat platforms will account for some 56% of Chrysler’s worldwide car volume.

Factor in possible programs such as modern interpretations of a Grand Wagoneer and pickup for the Jeep brand, and questions are raised about Chrysler’s capacity to deliver in the wake of payroll cuts that accompanied its Chapter 11 filing.

Reviving the Grand Wagoneer is an idea floated by CEO Sergio Marchionne, who also heads Fiat, during January’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Renewed speculation about a Jeep pickup has been rampant since the auto maker teased dealers late last year by trotting out the Gladiator concept, which was firmly nixed in 2006.

A senior executive tells Ward’s Chrysler’s product plan is “fluid.” But that condition stems from a changing market rather than concern about the auto maker’s resources.

Early iterations of pending C-car “compare favorably” with VW Golf, Dodge chief Ralph Gilles says.

Chrysler announced in November it would hire 1,000 engineers in the succeeding four months. To date, vacancies remain though the auto maker is “well beyond” the 500-mark, spokesman Mike Palese says.

And despite the sea change created by Chrysler’s transition to Siemens’ NX design software from Dassault’s CATIA, a move to better align the auto maker’s processes with those of Fiat, “we have full confidence we will continue to deliver on our product plan,” he adds.

The Fiat-based CUVs for Jeep and Chrysler are scheduled to arrive in 2013. The long-rumored Alfa CUV is consistent with a Fiat cadence conceived in the early stages of the strategic partnership the Italy-based auto maker forged with Chrysler in 2009.

Expect the Alfa version to be sold in the U.S., as there are plans to reintroduce the brand using Chrysler’s dealer network. Alfa left the market in 1995.

The Lancia CUV likely will be exported, considering the brand has replaced Chrysler as a premium-segment player in most European markets. Plus, Lancia has no foothold in North America.

C-U.S. Wide is derived from Fiat’s C-Evo platform, which helped the all-new Alfa Romeo Giulietta compact car win raves last year in Europe. The new architecture will debut in 2012 as the underpinning of a Dodge-brand C-segment car and, like its Italian cousin, it is winning admirers.

“There’s a lot of sweat equity under that platform,” Dodge President and CEO Ralph Gilles says. Tipping his hat to Volkswagen, early iterations of the pending C-car “compare favorably with the Golf,” he adds.

When Alfa launched the Giulietta, the auto maker placed a premium on aluminum and high-strength to ensure the car would “satisfy the most demanding customers in terms of road-holding, agility and safety.”

Adds Gilles: “It will get us some new customers.”

This bodes well for the Chrysler brand, which gets a platform-mate to the Dodge C-car next year and successors to the Chrysler 200 midsize car and its Dodge Avenger platform-mate. The latter two will migrate to C-U.S. Wide, or a version thereof, in 2013.

The gathering momentum has dealers breathing a sigh of relief. Through February, Chrysler sales were tracking 16.8% ahead of like-2010 and on pace with last year’s 16.5% surge past 2009, according to Ward’s data.

“This is a whole different company than it was a year ago – a whole different company,” says Bill Kelly, who owns two Chrysler stores in Pennsylvania.

“That starts at the top,” he adds, referring to Marchionne.

The unassuming 58-year-old Italian-born executive, who attended university in Windsor, ON, Canada, a largely blue-collar city in the shadow of Detroit, increasingly is described as someone who “gets” the auto industry.

“Sergio, in a word, gets it like very, very few CEOs get it,” says Phil Gott, IHS Global Insight’s managing director-automotive consulting, who bases his assessment on Chrysler’s attention to powertrain technology.

“There hasn’t been this level of visible (powertrain) activity at Chrysler,” Gott says. “Chrysler’s always felt the customer doesn’t care what’s under the hood, as long as the car goes down the road, with the exception of Hemi.”

The year’s second quarter will see the debut of a dual-clutch transmission, followed by an 8-speed automatic rear-wheel-drive gearbox and, next year, a 9-speed automatic for front-wheel-drive applications.

Fiat’s MultiAir valve-actuation technology debuts in North America on the Fiat 500 but Chrysler applications are expected, a move that will bring the auto maker “right up there with BMW in terms of intake-valve throttling,” Gott says.

The secretive Tiger Shark engine program that will upgrade Chrysler’s I-4 World Engine for next year’s C-cars demonstrates the breadth of Marchionne’s aggressiveness.

“We’re going to bring about improvement in all baseline technologies as we go through,” Marchionne tells Ward’s. “Every piece of powertrain that sits within Chrysler is going to go through a substantial revamp in terms of the technology that we apply to these things.”

But he bristles at the suggestion Fiat executives rushed to upgrade the World Engine, which largely has underwhelmed critics since its 2005 debut.

The World Engine “was not a disappointment,” Marchionne says. “I consider it to be a leading-edge solution in terms of 4-cyl. powertrains.”

And then there’s the all-new Pentastar V-6, one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2011, which is set to replace seven existing engines.

Says Gott: “If you look at that engine, it’s designed for very high levels of boosting. That was designed from the get-go. All that happened long before Sergio came on board, but nonetheless (customers) want a visceral experience from their cars. They’re going to get it from Sergio.”

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About the Author(s)

Eric Mayne

Senior Editor, WardsAuto

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