Eric Mayne's Blog

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Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne is more than a number-crunching suit.

First of all, he rarely wears a suit. Second, he is passionate about cars and trucks.

Marchionne has told me he indulges himself with the stable of vehicles at Fiat Auto SpA, where he also is CEO. He can barely hide a smile when he says, “Ferrari” – though he likely was not smiling one day in November 2007 when he was behind the wheel of a 599 GTB Fiorano.

A vehicle stopped suddenly in front of him on a motorway in Switzerland. And to avoid a collision, Marchionne veered into a guardrail. Hard.

He emerged unscathed. Not so the Ferrari.

To date, Marchionne seems most taken with the truck products in Chrysler’s lineup. After publicly professing a deep affection for the Jeep Wrangler last November, he recently declares the Dodge Nitro to be his favorite.

I wonder what is it about that edgy, urban-flavored SUV that captures the imaginations of high-powered executives? It also was the apple of Tom LaSorda’s eye when he was Chrysler CEO.

He told Ward’s in 2006 it would be “a real winner.”

Not even the most zealous Chrysler backer would say LaSorda’s prediction came true.

Since making its debut as an ’07, the Nitro has been a stalwart sales performer in its segment, placing third, respectively, behind the Wrangler and Jeep Liberty, the Nitro’s own platform-mate. But that order changed in 2009, when the Kia Sorento displaced the Nitro for third spot, according to Ward’s data.

And while January deliveries exceeded prior month, the Nitro's trend line is tracking below January 2009.

Against this backdrop, the truck has underwhelmed critics.

Perhaps the favored status Marchionne bestows on the Nitro is informed by pending changes. Styling tweaks, performance upgrades and newly packaged content are planned for this calendar year, including a more powerful 4.0L V-6 engine and 20-in. aluminum wheels – both of which are standard equipment.

Then again, perhaps he’s too forgiving. Because he knows he’s got a fleet of Maseratis to drive if he gets bored.

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