Commentary: Not The Final Mic Drop

Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

This was rumored to be Sergio Marchionne's curtain call at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The man was responsible for saving Chrysler from oblivion in the face of the Global Financial Crisis. Marchionne lead the integration of the company into Fiat S.p.A., which was seen as a huge gamble on both sides. The formation of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles received mixed reviews. While the critics wondered if this new company will outlast the last attempt at integrating a European automotive firm with an American one will last and how much either side was going to run each other.

As reports and rumors began flying earlier last week, this would be Marchionne's final Five-Year Plan as the boss of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, it sounded as he was going to do a mic drop with some bad news for both sides of the Italian-American corporate family.

Well…Marchionne did wear a tie at the "Capital Markets Day" presentation in Balocco, Italy.

Like the two previous Five-Year Plan presentations, the all-day affair featured brand updates and plans for through 2022, corporate initiatives on connectivity, autonomous vehicles, electrification and sustainable propulsion, fiscal projections, and key drivers towards their goals. This time around, there was an emphasis on four key brands that have been doing well for FCA, along with the discussion of the other topics as mentioned. There were a few things missing in this presentation, even with the positive messaging throughout the day.

The upshot of the new Five-Year Plan is an expansion of Jeep as a global brand. They are adding product worldwide by 2022, including a sub-Renegade SUV, a Jeep pickup truck, new 2- and 3-row Grand Cherokee replacement models, and a halo product resurrecting the Wagoneer name. All other current models will either be refreshed and replaced with new versions.

New to Jeep is the Deserthawk designation. As the Trailhawk models showed solid off-road capabilities of their non-Wrangler models, Deserthawk is Jeep’s answer to the growing trend of ultra-capable trucks and SUVs produced by other manufacturers. On the on-road spectrum, Jeep is looking to create an “urban” model focused on in-town capability with an emphasis on control in wet and snowy conditions.

To add to the brand's expanded equity is a program called Jeep Wave. This is a program where you can do a subscription ownership service, along with vehicle sharing, and other connected services. This is not just a North American initiative, as FCA wants to launch this globally in 2019.

Some of these new products will not be available in North America. There will be the localization of products to fit specific market needs, such as the Grand Commander in China. If that sounds familiar, there was such a brand that does exactly that – Fiat.

While Ram is not a global brand, its alignment with Fiat Professional will be solidified with a new small van to be introduced by 2022. The new heavy-duty Ram pickup is set for the next 12 months, along with a possible midsized version. The question is whether we will see this new midsized pickup from Ram in North America by 2022.

Maserati will finally produce the Alfieri coupe by 2022, as an electric vehicle. The other new product news for the Trident is a larger SUV, which would compete for the same ultra-luxury customer as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, Bentley Bentayga, and Lamborghini Urus. The latter would be a better value at a lower price point than the three established ultra-luxury SUVs.

With the growth of Alfa Romeo worldwide, new products will again pop up on our radar. The sports car market could see the resurrection of the 8C and GTV coupes by 2022, along with two new SUVs to compliment the Stelvio. China is also demanding long-wheelbase versions of the Stelvio and Giulia to meet market demands.

As with every manufacturer, FCA is looking to expand electrification across the board. You will see it through Ferrari-developed drivelines in Maserati models, along with Alfa Romeo, Jeep, and Ram Truck products. Fiat will also expand on electrification with new vehicles and variants for various markets worldwide.

The last point is curious because there were no presentations for Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, or Lancia during this all-day press conference. Passing references, yes…but a spokesperson did say that all four brands will not be eliminated.

OK…that's great. But…

Frankly, I felt that the FCA people at this all-day press conference danced around the issue of Dodge, Chrysler, Fiat, and Lancia. They failed to address their fates or any changes in product and market strategy. After all of the rumors and sensational reporting stating everything from the elimination of the Chrysler brand to a paring down of Fiat’s own global offerings were simply masked by their biggest successes – Jeep, Ram, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati.

Back to Marchionne, he warned us not to talk about a succession plan for him until he steps down in 2019. That is an interesting statement coming from various perspectives.

However, the question of the future of the brands was soon drowned out by the usual future-talk of autonomous driving, connectivity, and alternative propulsion. We get it, we need to live in a future-forward world where you can text and use social media while your vehicle drives you with about a few miles of charge left on the battery.

If this is our future, then what about the future of Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, and Lancia? It would be helpful to know what will transpire with a global brand, two North American brands, and an exclusively Italian brand.

We are left with more questions than answers after a full day in Italy. If we can set aside the succession plan after Marchionne leaves the company and challenge FCA to deliver on the new vehicles they announced on Friday, maybe we will have a focused entity in this industry that will deliver on more than product.

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