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Chrysler Brand President and CEO Olivier Francois unvei... Chrysler Brand President and CEO Olivier Francois unveiled the new 200 and Town & Country at the LA Auto Show. (Chrysler)

In November 2009, Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne stood before hundreds of journalists, analysts and suppliers at the automaker's Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters, and tried to convince the crowd that the Italian automaker would succeed with Chrysler where German automaker Mercedes-Benz had failed in its ten-year ownership of the company.

The skepticism in the halls of Chrysler ran thicker than the pesto that had been flown in by Marchionne for the event, along with the breads, meats, coffee, biscotti, espresso and mineral water. Indeed, the fete was flown in from Italy as local Michigan purveyors proved not to be up to the Italian CEO's standards. Needless to say, there wasn't a can of Vernors or a bottle of Faygo pop to be seen anywhere. Images of future products flashed on the screen via PowerPoint. A Fiat Cinquecento (500) was on hand to help show what Fiat was bringing to the table. Yet, the whole thing was undermined by an ad for the Dodge Ram, an odd, "who-thought-this-was-a-good-idea" piece featuring a Zen-like pronouncement (to pickup truck buyers?) that "I am Ram. My Tank is Full." Is there a way to say 'oy vey' in Italian?

It became known in the press core as the "Chrysler Death March," a ten-hour affair that crushed the spirits and attention spans of even the most dedicated Mopar and Jeep enthusiasts. What was Marchionne thinking? That was the refrain for months as Chrysler went dark after the event, shutting down press inquiries about even the most mundane story lines, rationing interviews with executives like driblets of water in the reportorial Sahara.

Now, we can say that the year of living quietly was all about keeping Chysler's powder dry. "It is best to talk when you really have something to say," says Olivier Francois, the chief marketing executive for both Chrysler and Fiat, as well as being the CEO, with profit-and-loss responsibility for the Chrysler and Lancia brands.

Product Solves Problems

Chrysler does have a few things to talk about. Finally. Much of it is even good. If disgruntled taxpayers could drive the new Chryslers for a weekend, I suspect at least some of them might come to think saving the U.S.-based auto industry was worth betting at least as much as a month of warfare in Afghanistan.

Having driven all of Chrysler's new products now, I can posit that this U.S. Government/UAW/Italian-automaker owned automaker is for real again despite the hoary ownership structure. Some of the new product is the tail end of the best part of Daimler's ownership. Some of it was improved starting under Cerberus Capital Management's ownership in 2007-2008. And some was improved starting with Fiat's ownership in the summer of 2009. The stuff that will come from a clean sheet of paper, combining Fiat platforms and Chrysler's engines and designs, is still two years away. But the Italians have succeeded where the Germans failed. Chrysler can stop being embarrassed about its showroom offerings, bear down and take its Milan-Michigan showroom to the next level.

2011 Dodge Charger

2011 Dodge Charger

The new Dodge Charger has been re-skinned and treated to a new interior. (Dodge)

The Charger that came out under Daimler ownership was a rental car from the get-go, with half the sales volume actually planned for Thrifty and Alamo. Sorry, but that is like setting out to take your sister to the prom without even asking any other girls. The interior looked like it was produced by Romanians under Ceausescu, a problem that would carry over to the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot.

The new Charger has not only been re-skinned under the direction of the very able Ralph Gilles, who may be the most talented all-around auto executive at Chrysler since Bob Lutz, but the interior has been upgraded with the kind of fit, finish and quality materials the Germans are known for, but didn't see fit to bestow on Chrysler vehicles.

2011 Chrysler Town & Country

2011 Chrysler Town & Country

Chrysler's venerable minivans have also received new interiors. (Chrysler)

All I have to say: Consider buying it in black. Please. Suddenly, every gold and maroon minivan lumbering down the road with chocolate milk stains and macerated Munchkins driven into the upholstery and carpet looks like the van I don't want to own, no matter what the Toyota Sienna ads say. With a redone interior, re-tuned suspension and improved backseats, the minivan that gave us the clever Stow 'n' Go seats is dead even with the new and improved Honda Odyssey minivan, and, in my book, ahead of the Toyota. Once you have this van in black, you'll never go back.

2011 Dodge Durango / 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2011 Dodge Durango and 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

The midsize Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee now share a platform. (Dodge and Jeep)

The new Dodge and Jeep vehicle shares a platform design with the new Mercedes M Class – what may be the only thing the Germans did right with Chrysler. Unless you need crazy towing, like big horse trailers and boats, and absolutely have to have a Chevy Tahoe, then the Durango, as well as the Grand Cherokee, should be on the shopping list for mid-size SUVs. The fuel economy lags the possibilities that come with the new Ford Explorer. But the ride and the interior that benefited from a comprehensive redo makes it recommendable. And it has a HEMI. Grunt.

2011 Chrysler 200 / Dodge Avenger

2011 Chrysler 200 and 2011 Dodge Avenger

Chrysler's Sebring has been renamed 200; it and its Dodge Avenger sibling get a new V6 engine. (Chrysler and Dodge)

Here is where things turn into Stone Soup a bit for Chrysler. The company started out with the Chrysler Sebring. That's like riding a bicycle into a tank battle. Fiat had to keep the roofline and greenhouse on the gawky, awful Sebring. But the improvements to ride, handling, suspension and, yes, the interior, make this one of the most extensive "mid-cycle" refreshments I have ever seen. The V6 Pentastar engine is also a great engine upgrade. Would I buy one? Um... no. I'd have to get past Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Accord and Camry first. And that just wouldn't happen. But Chrysler is no longer standing naked at the party. For Chrysler fans, you can now buy these cars without drawing snickers and the "what-a-chump" looks even from the guys at the car wash.

2011 Dodge Journey

2011 Dodge Journey

Dodge's Jounrney benefits from a new V6 and a revised interior. (Dodge)

The Journey was never a terrible car. I still don't see the need for the third-row of seats in this package, but that's me. The team worked its magic improving the interior here as well. The Pentastar V6? Check. Sure handling? Check. Nice lines on the outside. Check. Feel free to compare and contrast and price compare against Ford Edge, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. I won't snicker any longer of you choose the Journey.

2011 Fiat 500

2012 Fiat 500

Chrysler thinks the Fiat 500 will compete well with the Mini Cooper.

The Italians have arrived in the neighborhood. They used to live here, having opened a restaurant where the food was poorly sourced and the service stunk. Now they are back with a new Chef. But they are going to be compared, inevitably, with the German-British fusion restaurant down the street. If you haven't picked up on the analogy yet, it's Fiat 500 vs. Mini. The 500, though, is a different vehicle than Mini. Smaller horses. Less a go-cart for the masses. It's a style play. And a brand play. You gotta want a Fiat. That will take care of the first 40,00 or 50,000 buyers. But we'd better see some engine enhancements after that to draw in independent voters. The bottom-line, though, is that we are glad to have "exchange-student Tony" from Milan staying with us.

Getting Past The Skepticism

When Fiat negotiated with The White House Auto Industry Task Force to take control of Chrysler when it emerged from bankruptcy, part of the skepticism about Marchionne's commitment stemmed from the fact that he was putting none of Fiat's money into the deal. Rather than put any of Fiat's finite cash reserves on the line, he was instead committing to share billions in Fiat's engine and engineering technology right down to vehicle platforms.

Marchionne, addressing his critics in his customary rumpled sweater ensemble, didn't seem, at the time, much better than Cerberus Capital Management LLC, the private equity firm that had bought Chrysler from Daimler and starved it of resources while it cut costs.

If the Fiat plan to restore Chrysler to viability and prosperity doesn't work, Marchionne has little but time and travel invested. He and the Italian posse he installed can be on the next plane to Milan, and leave the White House and employees holding the bag.

The people at Chrysler -- the engineers, designers, product planners, and workers of all stripes -- were never the main problem. They labored under Germans who didn't really get them. Then, they labored under a private equity firm who didn't really understand them. It is worth pointing out that Fiat management went through the place with a hot knife, culling out people who were either too entrenched in "old-think," or weren't willing to read the new memos about the new ways.

It's hard to blame Fiat for that, as Fiat has been trying to do the equivalent of rebuild a house before the fires were all out. People have been working seven days a week for a year to make it work, and to bring back the company so that it can be a source of jobs, and hopefully pride, for another generation.

The commitment and work show. It's not all there yet. But the long, ugly march through the barren, joyless wilderness of Dodge Calibers, Chrysler Crossfires, lame engines, bankruptcy and jobs banks is behind us.

The good people at Chrysler who were always there have been unleashed to make great vehicles again, like a new generation of cooks unleashed with better ingredients and the mandate to wow the customers that just wasn't there under the previous German owners, or the bankers who moved in for a while. The next big battle is to move the needle on Consumer Reports recommendations and J.D. Power's quality ratings so that skeptical consumers, and not just car geeks will bite.

If I could offer CEO Marchionne one piece of advice going forward, something that he may not have thought of or discovered yet, it's this: While I admit Italy has Michigan beat on the wine front, we can set a pretty nice table here in Michigan. Next time you have a big party, you need not fly the stuff in. A table of Italian wine and local food sounds like a good combination to me.


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  • 17 Comments
      hgeorgech
      • 5 Months Ago
      Since Chrysler closed so many dealers the past couple of years, getting to a showroom to see their new hardware let alone a service dept is a real problem in some areas! Fiat or not, Chrysler has a lot of catching up to do - they still are marketing mostly "long-in-the-tooth" models - even their beloved 300 is looking dowdy compared to US / import alternatives .. in short, even with Fitat's infusion to "freshen" the current model lineup, Chrysler still is a distant finisher in the auto sales race. Where is the newer technology at Chrysler/Fiat - electrics, hybrids, fuel cells? In the former words of Lee Iacocca (a REAL car guy) - "you either lead, or get out of the way" .. also, his "if you can find a better car, buy it"! Chrysler/Fiat -- take a page or two out of Iacocca's book! NOTE: If you want an accurate barometer of a car's relative market appeal/acceptance .. look at resale values ... and JD Power stats on quality. Chrysler still has a LONG way to go in improving those criteria! Chrysler/Fiat cannot count forever on rent-a-car sales to keep it afloat!
      krmtdfr9
      • 5 Months Ago
      I owned a 1952 Fiat 500 **************** sold it for the same amount as i had purchased it three years earlier. the car started every mourning and never gave me any trouble. i drove it all over Europe 1000 mile+ trips were not uncommon. I would have never trusted a 30 year old Dodge to be my primary travel car. I hope that the new Fiat is as dependable as the old one's were. Sign me up for one as soon as they hit the dealership.
      • 5 Months Ago
      If you dont like the hemis gas milage try another engine they other engines that have good milage hemi is bruit power and uses gas
      Janet & Dave
      • 5 Months Ago
      I got a 2009 Challenger and must say it rides *********** everything I would want, I was looking at getting a Chrysler 300 but my wife said I should live a little and talked me itno getting the Challenger, I get a lot of complements about the looks and the ones who have ridden with me think it rides great. 2 of them say when they get ready to buy new they will consider one.
      janelee595
      • 5 Months Ago
      teechman i am sorry to inform you i could not make out exactly what your face looks like, what with your head so far up your ass. chrysler builds ****** cars period where have you been for the last 60 years. i had one in the sixties, total garbage,leaked, rusted, noisey, lousy. you must have some other interest in chrysler. no one could be that misinformed (stupid)
      Hi Todd
      • 5 Months Ago
      Chrysler, you better do something about your gas milage, because Hemi means "suck the fuel dry"!
      teechman531
      • 5 Months Ago
      Thank God that the Obama had the guts and foresight to save the American auto industry. God knows where we would be right now if we were down another 3 million jobs. We spent a lot less than we will spend keeping the wealthy in tax cuts. I grew up with Chrysler, working for them since the sixties. People who gravitate to Chrysler are very special and talented. Chrysler was doing great in the early ninties before the hostile takeover and rape of their technology by by Master Race Motors. I am betting that the government will wind up making a profit on the investment of Chrysler and GM, not to mention the tax reveues from 3 million more people paying taxes in stead of collecting unemployment. I can tell that things are getting better because the less intellegnt are already not calling Gm "Obama motors". Some of them are trying to give Dubaya credit.
      • 5 Months Ago
      there seems to be alot of you talking how bad the hemis milage is, well speaking from my own experience in my 2006 300c if you put the pedal down the tires spin fast and so does the needle on the fuel gauge, but if you drive like a normal person, they get over 25 miles a gallon on the road, thats pretty damn good hot rod when you want, fuel economy when you want, the decision is yours
      • 5 Months Ago
      I love my 2005 Chrysler 300C. It is fun to drive and has been fairly trouble free for over 100,000 miles. The Hemi engine has been great.
      Tim Andrews
      • 5 Months Ago
      Where's the picture and write up on the Dodge Caliber? I own a 2010 Caliber and I think it's a excellent car for the money. The gas milage is alot more then they advertise--I get 29 in city-34 on hyw. If Chrysler would advertise this car on TV as much as Toyota does there cars, this car would be a winner. in fact I think Chrysler needs to advertise all there cars more on TV.
      goatcars2
      • 5 Months Ago
      This is all wonderful but where's the coverage of the Billion Dollars Chrysler stiffed the taxpayers last month on their loan default????????
      • 5 Months Ago
      I sent dodge an email back in the late summer of 2010 and got a reply that coming the second week in Nov I would get a Great Surprise email that would have thrilling news about the Challenger! Well about a week ago I got a short email from Dodge with only a drawing of a Challenger, no information just go to your local Dodge dealer. Now silence from Dodge, no official site to build a Challenger or details of it's feature and options. Just finding little bits of info on the web with hard searching. HEY DODGE THIS IS NO WAY TO GET POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS EXCITED! As a matter of fact I ticks me off. What the heck is the big secret? Release some info and numbers or pictures at the very least. Man if it takes this long, with no explanation, how do they expect to sell cars? Almost every other car maker has had their 2011 models on the web for 5 or 6 months. You can't tell the players without a program! By the time they release the info on the Challenger everyone else wil be releasing info on their 2012 models! By the way before Dodge told me to go to their dealers I went to my local dodge store and was told they would have a 2011 Challenger SE in three coat red, by the second week in *************** heard form dealer yet?
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