Here Come the Fiats: Vrooom

Here Come the Fiats: Vrooom

The tiny Fiat 500 is one of the first cars Chrysler hopes to build in North
America through its new alliance with Fiat. “It’s highly, highly likely that
the Fiat 500 will be built in the NAFTA region,” said Chrysler vice chairman
Tom LaSorda after the deal with Fiat was completed as part of the company’s
structured bankruptcy. Lasorda added that Fiats will probably begin showing
up in American showrooms within the next few months.

Will they sell “There is a lot of potential,” says a hopeful Ralph Gilles,
Chrysler’s Vice President of Design, who believes that cars such as the
Fiat Punto and Bravo could have great appeal for American buyers. “The
technology is there. These guys know how to do it,” he says.

That’s not how many older Americans think of Fiat, the chronically
unreliable cars of Boomers’ college years. Though Fiat is an acronym for
Fabrica Italiana Automobili Torino , many
older Americans joke that it really stands for Fix It Again Tony. Plagued by
chronic breakdowns, Fiat left the American market in 1983 with it’s
reputation badly tarnished. But Fiat underwent its own transformation after
Sergio Marchionne became CEO of the automaker in 2004 and ushered in new
talent and technology. Though facing its own financial troubles, the Italian
automaker has since been impressing consumers with its eye-catching exterior
designs, steady improvement in quality and updated motors.

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In addition to the Fiat 500, which is well known for its styling, Chrysler
executives also are known to be interested in Fiat’s small, turbo-charged
diesel engines, which would immediately give a company best known for
minivans a big fuel-economy boost.

LaSorda says much of the work needed to put Fiat’s vehicles in compliance
with U.S. emission standards and safety regulations has already been
completed since talks between the two automakers actually started in March
of 2008. “If you take a look at the , the sales pickup
opportunity is going to start in about 18 months so we’re going to be
perfectly timed to take advantage of it,” said Jim Press, the former Toyota
executive, who is now Chrysler’s top salesman.
Chrysler showrooms will also be featuring new Chryslers. Press says the
company also has eight new products, including a hybrid pick-up truck and
electric vehicles set to role out over the next 18 months. While Chrysler
has trimmed its engineering staff in the face of the financial crisis, it
has kept the important projects alive, Press says.

Last month, Chrysler engineers showed off the Dodge Circuit EV to reporters
at the Society of Automotive Engineers annual meeting in Detroit. Chrysler
is promising to deliver an all-electric, battery-driven vehicle, such as
Dodge Circuit, by the end of 2010. The Dodge Circuit has a range of between
150 and 200 miles before the batteries must be recharged. The car can be
recharged via a standard 110 volt or 220 volt outlet found in most single
family homes.

Chrysler vehicles will get a dash of Fiat spice. A secretive visit by Fiat
executives to Chrysler’s design studio in Auburn Hills, Mich., last December
convinced Fiat executives that Chrysler could still put some new zip into
vehicles such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Even before the bailout, Chairman
Robert Nardelli had decreed that the company, with help from A123, a battery
maker, and General Electric would move ahead to develop electric vehicles
with four times the fuel economy of Chrysler’s traditional sedans and Jeeps.
“We’re not going back,” Nardelli said.

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