Special Coverage

Frankfurt Auto Show

FRANKFURT, Germany – Chrysler Group LLC is pushing hard to realign its product plan within the sphere of Fiat Auto SpA’s technology, while taking great pains to avoid recklessness.

That’s how the U.S. auto maker’s core-brand chief explains Chrysler’s near-silence, now approaching 100 days, which commenced when Fiat took control.

“We want to make sure what we share is concrete,” says Peter Fong, president and CEO-Chrysler brand, at the auto show here.

Excepting a few brief encounters with the media, Chrysler executives have gone underground to review and scrap, if necessary, scheduled vehicle introductions in favor of rollouts that feature Fiat powertrains and platforms.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne surfaced briefly today for an impromptu chat with reporters at the show. A Fiat insider says Marchionne, also CEO of Fiat, is surprised at how little investment was made in product development by the auto maker’s previous owners.

Fiat acquired its 20% stake in Chrysler after the auto maker, formerly owned by Cerberus Capital Management LP, emerged from bankruptcy this year. Under Cerberus, Chrysler repeatedly denied persistent rumors it was skimping on product development.

In January, the company said it would launch eight new or significantly refreshed vehicles by mid-2010. However, between now and next spring, Chrysler has confirmed just two launches: the ’10 Dodge Ram heavy-duty pickup and ’11 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Expect Chrysler to unveil a 5-year plan in November, Marchionne tells reporters here. He also says Chrysler will begin reporting quarterly results by year’s end and that restructuring of the auto maker has been more difficult than he initially thought.

Additionally, Marchionne says Fiat and Chrysler, combined, are aiming to reach up to 6 million unit sales annually, compared with 4.2 million at present.

“We will share significant milestones, numbers, and we will show how we’re going to come out of this,” he tells the media. “This is a big issue and we’re working really hard.”

Led by Marchionne, a team of 23 Chrysler executives huddle daily. The pace is “fast and furious,” Fong tells Ward’s. The team is “very engaged” with Marchionne, he adds, and debate sometimes is vigorous.

“That’s what we want,” Fong says. “We want all 23 managers (to share) their expertise.” And the goal is simple: determine “which brands should have what.”

Fiat gives a peek of what is possible at the show with the world debut of the Punto Evo, the latest iteration of the auto maker’s popular Grande Punto C-car.

Critics in the U.S. have maligned Chrysler’s C-segment car, the Dodge Caliber, for a lack of refinement. However, for ’10, the vehicle benefits from soft-touch interior materials and a new international-market diesel engine from Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz division.

The Mercedes-sourcing arrangement replaces one that saw Volkswagen AG provide the Caliber’s diesel engine.

Fiat also pulls the sheet off a second-generation 1.3L 4-cyl. diesel featuring the auto maker’s new MultiAir technology. Destined eventually for all Fiat Group engines, including Chrysler, MultiAir is an electrohydraulic valve-management system that controls air intake using the intlet valves, independent of the throttle.

The effect is improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. The Punto Evo’s fuel consumption is shaved further through start/stop technology, which Fiat rolls out as standard equipment on all its engines – gasoline and diesel – that meet Euro 5 emissions regulations.

Punto occupants will enjoy added convenience from “Blue & Me Tom Tom,” a new portable satellite navigation unit that manages telephone calls, navigation and other functions via touch-screen technology.

Against this backdrop, Chrysler is searching for a new telematics solution. The planned ’10 introduction of sophisticated infotainment services was nixed when the auto maker’s new management team canceled a previous agreement with Hughes Telematics Inc.

Meanwhile, the Fiat 500, the only Fiat-brand vehicle scheduled for introduction in the U.S. through Chrysler, becomes available as a cabriolet, dubbed the 500C.

Fiat already has 13,000 orders for the minicar’s newest derivative.

– with newswire reports

emayne@wardsauto.com