In November 2009, Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne stood before hundreds of journalists, analysts and suppliers at the automaker's Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters, and tried to convince the crowd that the Italian automaker would succeed with Chrysler where German automaker Mercedes-Benz had failed in its ten-year ownership of the company.
The skepticism in the halls of Chrysler ran thicker than the pesto that had been flown in by Marchionne for the event, along with the breads, meats, coffee, biscotti, espresso and mineral water. Indeed, the fete was flown in from Italy as local Michigan purveyors proved not to be up to the Italian CEO's standards. Needless to say, there wasn't a can of Vernors or a bottle of Faygo pop to be seen anywhere. Images of future products flashed on the screen via PowerPoint. A Fiat Cinquecento (500) was on hand to help show what Fiat was bringing to the table. Yet, the whole thing was undermined by an ad for the Dodge Ram, an odd, "who-thought-this-was-a-good-idea" piece featuring a Zen-like pronouncement (to pickup truck buyers?) that "I am Ram. My Tank is Full." Is there a way to say 'oy vey' in Italian?
It became known in the press core as the "Chrysler Death March," a ten-hour affair that crushed the spirits and attention spans of even the most dedicated Mopar and Jeep enthusiasts. What was Marchionne thinking? That was the refrain for months as Chrysler went dark after the event, shutting down press inquiries about even the most mundane story lines, rationing interviews with executives like driblets of water in the reportorial Sahara.
Now, we can say that the year of living quietly was all about keeping Chysler's powder dry. "It is best to talk when you really have something to say," says Olivier Francois, the chief marketing executive for both Chrysler and Fiat, as well as being the CEO, with profit-and-loss responsibility for the Chrysler and Lancia brands.
Product Solves Problems
Chrysler does have a few things to talk about. Finally. Much of it is even good. If disgruntled taxpayers could drive the new Chryslers for a weekend, I suspect at least some of them might come to think saving the U.S.-based auto industry was worth betting at least as much as a month of warfare in Afghanistan.
Having driven all of Chrysler's new products now, I can posit that this U.S. Government/UAW/Italian-automaker owned automaker is for real again despite the hoary ownership structure. Some of the new product is the tail end of the best part of Daimler's ownership. Some of it was improved starting under Cerberus Capital Management's ownership in 2007-2008. And some was improved starting with Fiat's ownership in the summer of 2009. The stuff that will come from a clean sheet of paper, combining Fiat platforms and Chrysler's engines and designs, is still two years away. But the Italians have succeeded where the Germans failed. Chrysler can stop being embarrassed about its showroom offerings, bear down and take its Milan-Michigan showroom to the next level.
2011 Dodge Charger
The new Dodge Charger has been re-skinned and treated to a new interior. (Dodge)
The Charger that came out under Daimler ownership was a rental car from the get-go, with half the sales volume actually planned for Thrifty and Alamo. Sorry, but that is like setting out to take your sister to the prom without even asking any other girls. The interior looked like it was produced by Romanians under Ceausescu, a problem that would carry over to the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot.
The new Charger has not only been re-skinned under the direction of the very able Ralph Gilles, who may be the most talented all-around auto executive at Chrysler since Bob Lutz, but the interior has been upgraded with the kind of fit, finish and quality materials the Germans are known for, but didn't see fit to bestow on Chrysler vehicles.
2011 Chrysler Town & Country
Chrysler's venerable minivans have also received new interiors. (Chrysler)
2011 Dodge Durango / 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
The new Dodge and Jeep vehicle shares a platform design with the new Mercedes M Class – what may be the only thing the Germans did right with Chrysler. Unless you need crazy towing, like big horse trailers and boats, and absolutely have to have a Chevy Tahoe, then the Durango, as well as the Grand Cherokee, should be on the shopping list for mid-size SUVs. The fuel economy lags the possibilities that come with the new Ford Explorer. But the ride and the interior that benefited from a comprehensive redo makes it recommendable. And it has a HEMI. Grunt.
2011 Chrysler 200 / Dodge Avenger
Here is where things turn into Stone Soup a bit for Chrysler. The company started out with the Chrysler Sebring. That's like riding a bicycle into a tank battle. Fiat had to keep the roofline and greenhouse on the gawky, awful Sebring. But the improvements to ride, handling, suspension and, yes, the interior, make this one of the most extensive "mid-cycle" refreshments I have ever seen. The V6 Pentastar engine is also a great engine upgrade. Would I buy one? Um... no. I'd have to get past Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Accord and Camry first. And that just wouldn't happen. But Chrysler is no longer standing naked at the party. For Chrysler fans, you can now buy these cars without drawing snickers and the "what-a-chump" looks even from the guys at the car wash.
2011 Dodge Journey
Dodge's Jounrney benefits from a new V6 and a revised interior. (Dodge)
2011 Fiat 500
Chrysler thinks the Fiat 500 will compete well with the Mini Cooper.
The Italians have arrived in the neighborhood. They used to live here, having opened a restaurant where the food was poorly sourced and the service stunk. Now they are back with a new Chef. But they are going to be compared, inevitably, with the German-British fusion restaurant down the street. If you haven't picked up on the analogy yet, it's Fiat 500 vs. Mini. The 500, though, is a different vehicle than Mini. Smaller horses. Less a go-cart for the masses. It's a style play. And a brand play. You gotta want a Fiat. That will take care of the first 40,00 or 50,000 buyers. But we'd better see some engine enhancements after that to draw in independent voters. The bottom-line, though, is that we are glad to have "exchange-student Tony" from Milan staying with us.
Getting Past The Skepticism
When Fiat negotiated with The White House Auto Industry Task Force to take control of Chrysler when it emerged from bankruptcy, part of the skepticism about Marchionne's commitment stemmed from the fact that he was putting none of Fiat's money into the deal. Rather than put any of Fiat's finite cash reserves on the line, he was instead committing to share billions in Fiat's engine and engineering technology right down to vehicle platforms.
Marchionne, addressing his critics in his customary rumpled sweater ensemble, didn't seem, at the time, much better than Cerberus Capital Management LLC, the private equity firm that had bought Chrysler from Daimler and starved it of resources while it cut costs.
If the Fiat plan to restore Chrysler to viability and prosperity doesn't work, Marchionne has little but time and travel invested. He and the Italian posse he installed can be on the next plane to Milan, and leave the White House and employees holding the bag.
The people at Chrysler -- the engineers, designers, product planners, and workers of all stripes -- were never the main problem. They labored under Germans who didn't really get them. Then, they labored under a private equity firm who didn't really understand them. It is worth pointing out that Fiat management went through the place with a hot knife, culling out people who were either too entrenched in "old-think," or weren't willing to read the new memos about the new ways.
It's hard to blame Fiat for that, as Fiat has been trying to do the equivalent of rebuild a house before the fires were all out. People have been working seven days a week for a year to make it work, and to bring back the company so that it can be a source of jobs, and hopefully pride, for another generation.
The commitment and work show. It's not all there yet. But the long, ugly march through the barren, joyless wilderness of Dodge Calibers, Chrysler Crossfires, lame engines, bankruptcy and jobs banks is behind us.
The good people at Chrysler who were always there have been unleashed to make great vehicles again, like a new generation of cooks unleashed with better ingredients and the mandate to wow the customers that just wasn't there under the previous German owners, or the bankers who moved in for a while. The next big battle is to move the needle on Consumer Reports recommendations and J.D. Power's quality ratings so that skeptical consumers, and not just car geeks will bite.If I could offer CEO Marchionne one piece of advice going forward, something that he may not have thought of or discovered yet, it's this: While I admit Italy has Michigan beat on the wine front, we can set a pretty nice table here in Michigan. Next time you have a big party, you need not fly the stuff in. A table of Italian wine and local food sounds like a good combination to me.