Romeo, Oh Romeo!
(Actually ‘Ro-may-o’, ‘Ro-may-o’)
As many may know Chrysler Holdings, as part of its remake of the country will be closing many dealerships and getting rid of several models. It’s also quite common knowledge now that the company will very likely become part of Fiat Group of Italy. What is not so common knowledge is why Fiat would want Chrysler in the first place.
For Years Chrysler has been the sick old man of the American Auto Industry. It’s not that Chrysler has been a bad company. In fact, they have been one of the most innovative in their products and one of the best in styling in quality…sometimes.
Chrysler has had one main feather in its cap for decades, and that was Jeep. It is and has been a very solid company with a near cult following. And, that’s not so hard when you’ve been basically making the same product for 60 years — especially, if you stick to what you do well and do it better than anyone else. Unfortunately for Chrysler, Jeeps aren’t for everyone.
Unfortunately, neither have Chrysler’s other products. Chrysler cars themselves have gone in cycles with the early 80’s being great and the mid 2000’s being wonderful and everything in the middle being a mish mash of poorly constructed amalgamations of moving parts that looked more like a combination of flying saucer and dung beetle than respectable automobile.
Luckily Chrysler didn’t fall into the same pitfall of Ford and GM by focussing on the biggest baddest penis-envy SUV-so-big-you-need-a-new-garage market segment. They didn’t go down the path of zero fuel economy but more cupholders than a cinemaplex. That’s a good thing for them. Unfortunately, they didn’t really seem to focus on any market segment at all.
Chrysler’s most recent suitor was of course German automaker Daimler-Benz. Daimler really only purchased Chrysler for Jeep. With the luxury car market changing away from large sedans and toward Luxury SUV’s and Cross-overs, Mercedes saw in the daddy of all Sport Ute’s a chance to get one up on the competition (usually BMW and Audi). So in order to get access to all those nice patents and technology that has kept Jeep the best at what it does since Normandy, Mercedes decided it was time to buy American. But, like Napoleon with Louisiana, Detroit wasn’t about to give in that easy. Jefferson couldn’t buy New Orleans without Missouri, and Germany couldn’t have the Jeep without Chrysler and company in tow. Still, the deal was done. Within a year of Daimler buyign Chrysler Mercedes debuted its first SUV (which looked an awful lot like a Grand Cherokee). A year or two after that and Jeep introduces its newer improved Grand Cherokee (which looked even more so like the Mercedes).
Long story short, Mercedes got what it wanted out of the deal. But, Chrysler didn’t come out so bad in the divorce either.
You see, the Germans don’t so much have a taste for luxury as much as Americans do, and they really don’t care that much about quality compared to consumers here. But they do value engineering above all else and in bringing into its family Chrysler, even if it was the ritalin addicted stepchild of the marriage, the Germans had to make sure that Chrysler was the best Chrysler it could be. So…sie haben den Chrysler besser gemacht.
And when they made Chrysler better, they did so the same way Ford made Jaguar and Volvo better; they looked for ways to take the good from what they had bought (an American brand that could sell big cars), the good from what they had (a German brand of great big cars in a country that doesn’t really value big cars), a whole lot of extra engineers in a country with high unemployment and high labor cost, and a whole lot of auto workers in a country with considerably lower production costs, threw in some designers, sprinkled in an Austrian or two for good measure, stared at a Bentley, and voila…the new line of Chrysler sedans.
Now here’s the thing, love them or hate them, the new Chryslers are pretty amazing cars. For one, they look an aweful lot like an updated version of my mom’s ’82 New Yorker we had when I was a kid. At the same time, they look like a slihtly smaller and boxier version of the big buck Bentley. But that’s not what matters, and that’s not why I knew several Mercedes execs in Germany who drove Chrysler 300’s. The big Chrysler is basically a Mercedes E Class, but for about 40-50 thousand dollars less. The drive train, suspension, electronics…let’s just say it’s a good deal.
So, we didn’t come out so bad when Chrysler came home. But, what about Fiat? Why would they want (the now bankrupt) Chrysler?
Well, they aren’t just after Chrysler for Jeep (which was the reason Mercedes bought Chrysler and the reason Chrysler tried to buy Renault, the reason Renault bought AMC, and the reason the AMC was formed with other companies from Willys in the first place). No, they want you!
Well, maybe they don’t necessarily want YOU, but they want access to you. Fiat wants access to the biggest car-buying market in the world (that’s us). They want to be able to get their cars into dealerships on street corners in America — dealerships in your town — dealerships that Chrysler and Dodge.
This won’t be Fiat’s first foray into the North American market. They had brief success in the 60’s and 70’s in some areas of the country and when England Air Force Base was open, you would even occasionally see one that had made its way to Alexandria via some poor unsuspecting Airman who learned all to well the jocular “Fix It Again, Tony”.
Fiat at the time, like most car coming out of Europe were crap to say the least. They were cheap, and sometimes fun, but you needed as much room in your trunk for tools as you did for groceries. Reputation at the time pretty much doomed Fiat in the American market when combined with our love for everything big and their specialization in making cars small.
Times are different now. Fiat makes good cars. Their company is stable. And, they have enough market share wordwide that a total failure in the American market wouldn’t really hurt them that bad. In fact, the Fiat Punto right) is the world’s Best Selling car. It’s not the fastest, it’s not the best looking, but it’s really really fuel efficient, reliable, sporty, and cheap! (three things most American cars have forgotten about being)
Does this mean we need to look for the new Fiat dealership on Coliseum Blvd or learn to add “Punto” to our vocabulary of Corvette, Mustang, and Wrangler? No…not likely. Fiat will fear American prejudice to their brand which most feel is a cheap car. They also wouldn’t want to put a car into our market that sounded anything like Pinto (car that had exploding gas tank, bean that causes explosive gas, etc). Instead we’re likely to see Fiat cars arrive on the local scene rebadged as Dodge’s.
A few years ago the idea of losing one of our American car brands was unthinkable to my Generation. Sure the 20th Century saw the rise and fall of hundreds of auto marques. There were even 4 or 5 of them here in Louisiana. But by the early 1970’s the American market had calmed down into a blend of brands that had remained fairly continuous for decades. Then a few years ago we lost Oldsmobile. Plymouth quickly followed suit, and rumors of Mercury’s demise have remained aloft for at least as long. And now we have to accept that within the next few years our familiar car market will change once again. Pontiac has already received its execution order. GMC is probably next and Buick may likely be following right along.
Back in the 1980’s and 90’s Chrysler played around with rebadging by selling Mitsubishi and Renault cars as Eagle and Dodge lines. Other automakers do this all the time as well. Fords are Mazdas; Chevys are Daewoos; Citroen, Puegot and Toyota all sell the exact same car with almost the exact same styling made in the exact same factory (it’s the Yaris here). Like most any other industry it comes down to marketing more than anything else.
Nowadays however, marketing has to be combined with market awareness and after 50 years of telling Americans what they want, car makers are having to listen to and react to what consumers are actually demanding. American consumers will still want sporty cars, and luxurious cars. They will want to feel they are getting the most they can for their money whether they spend seven thousand or seventy (believe it or not, most Europeans don’t view driving as a pleasurable thing so most cars there are quite utilitarian and even BMW’s sold in Germany seem cheaply made by American standards of fit and finish). In addition now to valuing the comfort and performance of our rides now though, Americans want something that’s going to be as kind to their wallets as it is kind to their bottoms. Fuel economy and lower cost of entry are becoming the defining factors in consumers’ car hunts.
The days of every auto manufacturer making a variation on the same theme is probably gone. And for Chrysler that most probably means a much leaner Dodge. Jeep does it’s job as an SUV marque impeccably and aside from losing the ill-conceived Compass, it’s safe. Dodge however is keyed for a makeover. It’s weight-loss regime will probably come in the form of jettisoning it’s SUV and truck offerings. Our market has shown that even the USA cannot support the 6-7 lines of full-sized trucks on the market. GM is already going to have to choose between Chevrolet and GMC as to which will go forward as their workhorse line, Ford is by far better at that market than anyone else, and Toyota has absorbed much of the market share that was at one time split. Dodge will likely need to concede defeat on this front. Ram Tough just wasn’t tough enough for $4/gal gas.
Chrysler as a marque is already lean and has its segment of sedan buyers. Plan on saying goodbye to the Sebring and despite being a good car, the Crossfire has already gotten the axe, so the baby Bentley / middle-class Mercedes is likely to be the bulk of its offerings with a minivan thrown into the mix somewhere. That leaves Dodge to pick up the slack and provide America with the cars they are wanting. Expect those cars to be Fiats. We’re likely to see cars like the Punto on Dodge lots with remenicent names like “Dart” and “Daytona”.
Now Fiat isn’t just a single brand. Fiat is a large car company and covers a full range. If you compared them to Ford, you would have Fiat [Ford], Alfa Romeo [Mercury], and Lancia [Lincoln]. But you have Maserati and Ferrari. Out of all of these we’re not likely to see Lancia, Fiat will likely be rebadged, and let’s face it, those who can afford Maseratis and Ferraris already have them. The one brand to watch though — and the one Brand to look for coming to a dealership near you is Alfa Romeo.
Alfa’s are an oddity in the car market. They’re completely out of sync with the brand design of most American and Asian marques, and even by European standard they are a sort of purposefully designed prodigal son of the industry. Alfa Romeo has the unique position of being born a sports car and manufactured by a company that sells the some of the cheapest cars in the world and some of the most expensive on the planet. What this all blends together to form is a brand of auto that has a very odd combination of German Sportiness, fine Italian Styling, and a very American middle class pricepoint. They’re luxurious, fast, fun, utilitarian, and really really cool!
Take a look at the 8c (left). It look likes a Porsche, drives like a dream and costs about the
same as a Mazda or a Saturn. And the one thing about Alfas that you can rarely say about a car that most people can afford (take a look at the car to the right)…They’re BEAUTIFUL!!!
Alfa Romeo actually makes a full line of cars and their price point is around where a Saturn is. Some are closer to the price of a Honda. The people I have known who owned them loved them and they are known to be very dependable.
I recommend you check out their website at alfaromeo.com
Of course, this is all conjecture on my part, but having spent as much of my adult life in other countries as I have in the US, I have had the chance to get to know more than just the local auto industry, and these are my guesses as to where we’re heading.
Only time will tell, but in the meantime, have a nice drool over the Alfa Romeo 8c: