NEW YORK -- From the moment that Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne pulled off the audacious deal to gain control of a deeply damaged Chrysler Group in 2009, the new ownership has confounded expectations.
The company’s very survival has surprised many observers, of course. So has its continuing streak of sales increases, now at 48 months of year-over-year gains. And the Ram brand, headed by Reid Bigland, turned heads in March when its pickup outsold the Chevrolet Silverado to become, at least momentarily, the nation’s No. 2-selling pickup.
In interviews at the New York auto show, it was clear that two of Bigland’s brand counterparts are, in different ways, working to push their brands into new spaces:
Jeep brand CEO Mike Manley announced that the brand will finalize its long-awaited deal for an assembly plant in China by the end of this month. The going hasn’t been easy -- at the Geneva auto show, he said he expected the deal by the end of March. But Chinese assembly is probably the biggest single step Manley could take to make the quintessentially American brand a global seller.
Jeep’s biggest advantage will be avoiding Chinese import tariffs. They are stiff enough to relegate Jeep today to “very much a niche role,” he says. Local production will make a difference to Chinese consumers, too, Manley adds: “They’re very aware of what’s built in the country.”
Chrysler brand chief Al Gardner will launch a “huge” advertising campaign to kick off sales of the redesigned 200. The sharp-looking 2015 version will go on sale at the end of June with a much-improved interior, a nine-speed transmission and an optional all-wheel drive system on higher-end models that can uncouple to shift power to rear wheels.
The question is whether this will establish the 200 as a real competitor to mid-sized powers like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion.
Gardner concedes that with the current 200, “we haven’t played in the heart of the segment.” With the 2015 version, set to launch in the second quarter, Chrysler has at least a reasonable hope of making headway in an important -- and very tough – bit of car turf.
No one expects the 200 to dethrone traditional leader Camry. However, significant progress could alter the industry’s notion that, however resurgent, today’s Fiat Chrysler Automotive still has an old problem with its American brands: It’s good at selling pickups, Jeeps and minivans. But cars? Not so much.