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RICK KRANZ

Fiat compact van might be just what Chevy needs

GM's Opel/Vauxhall unit is selling a version of the Fiat Doblo, a compact van, in Europe. It's called the Combo and is offered in five- and seven-seat versions with sliding doors. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog contained an older photo of the Combo that was not made by Fiat). Photo credit: Opel
UPDATED: 11/30/11 12:22 pm ET

Could there be a Fiat in Chevy's future?

Chevrolet has an opening for a compact van and Fiat might be the logical source.

Sound crazy?

Think about this: The front-drive, compact van market is viewed as a growing segment.

Specifically:

• Ford has the Transit Connect. The van is built at Ford Otomotiv Sanayi AS, a joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and Turkey's Koc Holding AS in that country. Through October, Ford sold 25,287 Transit Connects in the United States, a 16 percent boost over last year.

• Nissan plans to sell the NV200 compact van beginning next year. That vehicle already is sold in markets outside of North America. The U.S. version is expected to be assembled by Nissan in Mexico.

• Chrysler Group will market a Ram-badged version of the Fiat Doblo. Fiat Group Automobiles and its Turkish joint venture, Tofas Turk Otomobil Fabrikasi, are creating the Ram van for the U.S. market.

Compact van sales numbers aren't big today. But as corporate average fuel economy regulations force full-sized vans to potentially expensive solutions to boost miles per gallon and reduce emissions, automakers are betting that compact vans will be attractive, less expensive alternatives for some operators.

For Chevrolet, now that the HHR is out of production, presumably the automaker needs a replacement.

What's interesting is that Opel/Vauxhall, General Motors' subsidiary in Europe, is selling a version of the Fiat Doblo, a compact van. It's called the Combo and is offered in five- and seven-seat versions with sliding doors. GM offers six engines, including natural gas and diesel.

The Doblo has good credentials. European journalists named the Doblo 2011's International Van of the Year. The vehicle is about the same length as the HHR, and it comes in window and panel versions, just like the HHR.

No one at GM is suggesting that the Combo or a different Fiat Doblo variant is being considered as a Chevrolet for the U.S. market.

But from a dollars and sense standpoint, for this niche it makes a lot of sense to have a partner. That's already been shown by the Fiat collaboration with Opel/Vauxhall.

So the question is, can similar compact vans, meaning Fiat-based Rams and Chevys, successfully coexist in the U.S. marketplace?

I believe so, as long as there is enough differentiation in terms of styling and powertrains.

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