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Is Sergio plotting to have a starved Chrysler whacked? Looks like it to me

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Tea leaves are notoriously imprecise when it comes to divining the future, but as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne has left us no other signs about what the next five years hold for the automaker he is about to leave, tea leaves will have to do.

And here's what they tell me: I think Marchionne plans to announce on Friday at FCA's investor day in Balocco, Italy, that the long-starved Chrysler brand will soon follow Maxwell and DeSoto and Plymouth into oblivion.

A source told a European colleague that such an announcement could come Friday, but the rumor is officially unconfirmed. Yet, Marchionne may have tipped his hand in January at the Detroit auto show when he answered a question about FCA's 2016 move away from cars in favor of SUVs and pickups in North America.

Read his quote, and see if you can tell what's missing: "Our commitment [to passenger cars] continues to be quite strong, especially when it comes to Dodge. We have found a way to play in the passenger car side with Dodge in a very clear way, and we're very uniquely positioned. I don't think we're going to abandon that market, especially given [Tim] Kuniskis' attachments to V-8s. I think he has one in his bedroom."

If you guessed, "any mention of a future for the Chrysler brand," then chances are your Marchionne decoder ring is set correctly.

It's more than a tad ironic that FCA is named after two of the automaker's weakest brands, especially in the U.S. (Note: I'm purposely leaving Lancia out of the discussion. It's not here, and it's not really much of anything Over There, either.) But while the Fiat brand has never really worked in the U.S., Chrysler did. Chrysler has a storied history stretching back to founder Walter P. Chrysler, and even within FCA, the brand had a brightly planned future as recently as 2014.

You see, at the last one of these investor dog and pony shows, in May 2014 in Auburn Hills, Mich., Marchionne and his crew laid out a plan to transform Chrysler into a ubiquitous brand to compete with Chevrolet and Ford across 65 percent of the segment spectrum. In a presentation titled "Our Time Has Come," Chrysler, investors were told, would have eight vehicles in its lineup by 2018, including two plug-in electrics.

Using the same accounting measures as FCA did then, Chrysler has just three vehicles: an ancient Chrysler 300 sedan that's old enough to vote, the Pacifica minivan and its plug-in electric hybrid variant.

Plans change, and the consumer shift away from sedans stuck an early fork in the future of the Chrysler 200, a planned compact sedan that was to be the Chrysler 100 and any plan to invest further in the 300 sedan. But those swings in consumer preferences don't explain what happened to the other portions of Chrysler's planned product portfolio: a midsize crossover that would share a platform with the 200 sedan and a full-size unibody crossover -- plus accompanying plug-in hybrid version -- that would have shared the Pacifica platform.

Those products should have been on dealership lots by now, according to the 2014 product plan. But they're not, and Chrysler is worse off for it.

If FCA's leadership team opts to whack Chrysler on Friday, it will no doubt have ample justification for doing so. Brands cost money to operate, and when you have a bunch of them, it seems reasonable to cull the herd of the weakest members.

But let's remember this: Chrysler isn't weak because consumers abandoned it.

It's weak because FCA did.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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