November 6, 2009

Confession #7: The Italians are coming

The badge may say Chrysler or Dodge, but in five years the car you rent from Thrifty or Dollar or whatever will be American on the outside and Italian on the inside.

Fiat may own just 20 percent of the Chrysler Group, but it's already going to have a profound effect on the future lineup of the smallest of Detroit's Big Three.

The highlights are this: the brightest points of the Chrysler product line are staying in place. That means Jeeps like the Grand Cherokee and Wrangler, the LX cars (300C, Charger and Challenger) and the minivans (Grand Caravan and Town & Country) aren't going anywhere. In fact, Fiat's rumored to be exploiting them, like their rumored plans to put a future Maserati or Alfa Romeo on the LX chassis and a future JGC-based Alfa SUV (pray that doesn't happen).

But the sore points of Chrysler -- basically everything else -- is going under Fiat rule. That eventually will mean smaller and more fuel-efficient cars with better build quality.

Autocar's Hilton Holloway has a point. There's a reason to be skeptical about the plan because it's going up against what GM and Ford have going in the American market. And now that the General has denied Magna the chance to share custody of Opel, that means the Germans will play more of a role in making sure there are world-competitive in the small car arena.

The only real distinction to Chrysler's new five-year plan is the Fiat 500. The car that made the new Mini look mundane will be saving the bacon of selected Pentastar dealers late next year and could prove to boost sales traffic like the British icon did to BMW centers. If anything, it could suddenly attract a whole new market to Chrysler dealers and maybe some more people will consider products such as Jeeps again.

Frankly, I still have a secret admiration for some Chrysler cars, like the Challenger and Jeeps, and a respect for more mainstream ones like the Charger and minivans. But there's no cachet to the Chrysler or Dodge brands that will make me lose my affection for Subaru, VW, or anything else European for that matter. If Fiat can't do what Daimler ultimately refused to do, there won't be anything left of Chrysler.

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