Commentary: Pentastar Trending

I love social media.

No, seriously, I do. It's a great way to connect with people and entities following a common interest and cause. It has played a significant role in the development and rebranding of this blog. How? The connections one makes with key people: Fans, contacts in the industry.

This has been a mutual win for all parties concerned. Not only did I see some growth in terms of these connections and what we can do for each other. Rather, we are able to get to know each other to facilitate these further connections.

Social media also provides opportunities to provoke thought. How many political messages do you get from your Facebook friends or the people you follow on Twitter? In my case, my Facebook had been blowing up with calls to remove Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin from office. Then, there’s the push to shame the Minnesota legislature for sending a proposed Constitutional amendment to the voters in 18 months time instead of dealing with the state’s economy and budget. Perhaps more ironic were the folks making fun of the so-called "rapture" that was supposed to put this planet into oblivion with some sort of a zombie invasion.

There are some pertinent and serious stuff that are also posted on social media as well. On Facebook last week, Chrysler Communications, the PR/media arm of the company, posed a question. They asked: "Given the announcement about refinancing the [government] loans through the private sector, the Chrysler-Fiat relationship, 2011 models, etc. — what do you say is the perception of Chrysler Group?"

Obviously, this provoked even more thought in framing a response. I needed to do some research to answer this question. I also needed to time to swallow this whole. I did – and here's my response…

First off, I've always been a Mopar person. I grew up with a GM-loving mom, while Dad brought home two of the Pentastar’s finest in my early years. In all, I'll admit having a deeply rooted affection for the underdog amongst the Big Three in Detroit.

Historically, when Chrysler gets it right, they are duly rewarded. When they get it wrong – ooh, boy. It has been the case going back to the early years. Chrysler always had been innovative – a leader in engineering and design. Yet, the fear had been the perpetual "great idea, bad execution" juju that had challenged the company often. As time wore on, every time they put together something spectacular, they narrowed the margin of error every time.

It was smart that Sergio Marchionne decided to get the government loans off of their books. By refinancing with private investors and money may be the way to do so, but inducing new interest in the company. Yet, I have to ask whether the money will be from this continent or abroad. If it stays within reach of Chrysler and Fiat, I see no problem in transferring debt into investment. However, the investors are demanding a high yield off the money they'll put into Chrysler – which would put more pressure on Chrysler and Fiat to deliver on the Five-year plan to change the lineup.

The greater concern is whether there will be an investment turnaround for Chrysler. Again, the investors point to product development and the timing of new product as a risk factor in pouring money to the company. The decision to not send any small Lancias as Chryslers on this side of the Atlantic was a bit worrisome in my opinion. It also puts pressure on Fiat to deliver as many 500s to satisfy the new demand for smaller, more efficient automobiles. Perhaps it would push Fiat and Chrysler to develop the C-Evo platform for small products here.

As for Fiat’s involvement in Chrysler, I understand that it takes time to get things rolling. Nothing is built in a day. Fiat still has a lot to offer Chrysler. I point to the C-Evo and Fiat’s other small car platforms as the key for Chrysler’s long-term success. Almost every comment throughout social media criticizing Chrysler has been the absence of a compact to compete with the new Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and others in its class. Everyone knows the Dodge Caliber has to go. Once the Caliber's replacement comes out, we should see a new level of interest in Chrysler on top of the wave of good things that have happened with the revised and new 2011 models across the firm.

As seen throughout the past 70 years, Jeep has been the golden asset. Fiat made a commitment to keep the brand in tact by cultivating its current lineup while resolving it’s newer ones. The Wrangler and Grand Cherokee are indeed global icons that will benefit all markets as it had under Daimler’s care. What is critical is for Fiat to deliver on its plan to co-develop Jeep’s lower models – replacing the Patriot, Compass and Liberty. Not only is the demand for small cars growing in North America – smaller SUVs and crossovers are in high demand as well.

What about the new and revised 2011 models? I like them. My first feel for these products at the Chicago Auto Show confirmed that Chrysler is going in the right direction. The material quality has improved, as does the overall cabin operation. The design enhancements helped improve the image of the brands they represent. Engineering has improved, ensuring that the vehicles ride lower with tweaks to the suspension and drive package to help get buyers to enjoy driving a Chrysler product again. The Pentastar V6 is a great motor, no doubt. Yet, I am waiting to see the new transmissions come on line to attach to it to see whether the promise of an efficient, high-powered V6 will do wonders for Chrysler – and Fiat.

If there is a shining pot of gold for both Auburn Hills and Turin, I can tell you that the new Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Durango are going to be winners throughout their lifespan. The Fiat 500 will bring a new group of consumers to the company as well on this side of the water. Jeep will always be Jeep…and hopefully more so with the new smaller products.

However, is there anything I'd like to see from my friends at Chrysler? Well…not to belabor the point about the C-Evo platform, but it is important that products based on this platform start showing up as soon as either company can do so. The C-Evo can spawn up to eight products covering almost every brand in the combined Fiat-Chrysler portfolio. The Caliber replacement must be first – a Fiat Bravo-sized model fit for North American drivers. Replacing the 200 and Avenger would also be critical with an enlarged C-Evo with the room, performance and quality to match its rivals in the hotly contested family midsize sedan market. I would also love to see a Fiat sold in the USA that would compete with the Suzuki Kizashi – a midsizer that's an affordable sports sedan with a tauter stance. Perhaps it would be a global car that replaces the current Linea and Chroma.

Plus, if re-introducing Alfa Romeo is still on the board, one would think to position Alfa as an alternative to Volvo, Saab and Acura – even Audi and BMW. What has to happen is a new entry-level premium sedan to go after the 9-3, S40/60, TSX, A4 and Lexus IS. Would you sell them at Fiat studios or at Chrysler showrooms? Good question…there may not be enough funds or overall interest towards creating a separate retail network for the brand. However, Fiat simply cannot support its network by selling the 500 alone – hence the suggestion of a smallish mid-size affordable sports sedan.

Lastly, RAM has not been discussed as much. Granted there will be a Dakota replacement coming soon, the one market I can see RAM getting into is for the full-sized van segment currently owned by Ford, GM (Chevrolet/GMC) and Daimler (Freightliner/Mercedes-Benz). Why not a RAM version of the Fiat Ducato? Why not one that runs on B20 biodiesel or easily convertible to natural gas or propane fuels?

Lastly, how about a true marriage between Blue&Me and UConnect? Let's integrate Fiat further into the Chrysler by introducing Fiat’s technology and branding into the other models stateside.

These are just points that may have been in discussion both in Auburn Hills and Turin. We’ll see how they will transpire in the next few years.

Overall, Chrysler is coming back. Fiat has done wonders for the company be integrating their people, philosophy and products into Chrysler. By selecting great personalities to give each brand an identity and a direction forward was also a smart thing to do – something that haven't been experienced in this industry in decades. Cases in point: Ralph Gilles at Dodge, Fred Diaz at RAM, Laura Soave at Fiat North America, Mike Manley at Jeep and Olivier Francois at Chrysler/Lancia.

Historically however, Chrysler has always bounced back strong only to reverb downward when product development fails or does not keep up with a sweeping new trend. I have a feeling Marchionne is not going to let that happen. He is the right group CEO at the right time. Bouncing between Fiat and Chrysler is not an easy task, but I can see Chrysler becoming an integral part of a global juggernaut as part of Fiat with its influence shared in every part of the Italian automobile entity's world. Now that the government-backed loans have been paid back, there is a better chance for Marchionne to hopefully steer both entities into the right course – upward.

Photo by Randy Stern

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