Chrysler Group plans to add a large expansion to its current facilities in Saltillo, Mexico, to assemble a Ram-branded version of the Fiat Ducato commercial van for North America.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler Group, said this week at the Detroit auto show that the expansion of the Saltillo plant would make it "the center for production of light-commercial vehicles in North America for us."
A Chrysler spokesman would not confirm the size of the investment, but company sources said it was expected to be about $500 million. Chrysler already operates a truck assembly plant, a stamping plant and two engine plants in Saltillo, about 180 miles southwest of Laredo, Texas.
Marchionne said the front-wheel-drive full-sized commercial van shares a platform with the Peugeot Boxer in Europe.
"It's designed perfectly to try and deal with the market segment here in the United States, so we think it will grow," he said.
The Ram brand offers a modified version of the Dodge Grand Caravan, called the Ram C/V, as a commercial cargo van, but it hasn't had a full-sized commercial van since it lost the Sprinter in its breakup with former owner Daimler AG. Last year, Ram sold 691 units of the C/V. Meanwhile, Ford sold 91,305 units of its Econoline van, not including the Club Wagon version, and 31,914 units of the Transit Connect.
The Ducato is scheduled to arrive in North America in 2013, Marchionne said. Its European versions have a 135.8-inch wheelbase, compared with the 138-inch wheelbase of the rear-wheel-drive Ford Econoline commercial van.
Chrysler previously said it would bring the smaller Fiat Doblo to North America as a light-duty commercial van and that it is studying bringing over the larger Fiat Daily as well. The Doblo is similar in size to the Ford Transit Connect.
Fred Diaz, head of both the Ram brand and Chrysler Group's operations in Mexico, said the automaker is looking at some styling changes to Fiat's current commercial van lineup to give them "that punchy Ram look." However, designers don't want to change too much, he said during an interview at the auto show.
"There probably are some styling cues that we're looking at. There's not much," Diaz said. "The van is so beautifully designed, and aerodynamically, it works very well. I think we'll do really well with these vans in the marketplace. I think they will connect and resonate really well with customers." c