Sergio Marchionne has the potential to become the next Lee Iacocca, says Chuck Eddy Jr., a Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge dealer in Youngstown, OH.

Veteran Chrysler dealers still speak fondly of Iacocca, whom they credit with saving the auto maker during bleak years in the 1980s.

Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Auto SpA, took on the same post at Chrysler Group LLC when the ailing U.S. auto maker came out of bankruptcy and hooked up with Fiat last year.

“He's a rough cut of Lee Iacocca, and I remember the dark days of Chrysler back then and what Iacocca did for the company,” Eddy, a 35-year dealer, says after a Chrysler dealer franchise meeting at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention.

“Sergio Marchionne is one of the smartest, toughest auto executives I've ever met,” he says. “He is making things happen. He is prodding people to get Chrysler through this.”

Other dealers attending the franchise meeting also laud Marchionne, who was not at the session.

“Sergio gives me hope, despite the lean years we've been having,” says Jim Bernstein, a Chrysler-Jeep dealer in Augusta, GA. “Business has been pretty awful. Am I nervous? Yes. But as a dealer, I'm willing to take risks.”

Maryland dealer Tammy Darvish praises the executive talents of Marchionne, an Italian who was educated in Canada and now is trying to revive an iconic American auto company.

But she says the new CEO, who prefers sweaters over suits, should establish a closer relationship with Chrysler dealers. One reason Iacocca connected to dealers is that he often interacted with them. Marchionne has yet to do that.

“I'm not accustomed to not having a relationship with the leaders of the companies I represent,” Darvish says. “I have a relationship with a customer that has a $19.95 oil change.”

But Marchionne “is not that type of guy,” Bernstein says. “He has five or six Blackberries and 50 to 60 people reporting to him. My worry is that he is not getting enough sleep.”

Darvish likes what she heard at the franchise meeting from Chrysler executives who were there. “It's been a long time since I came out of a Chrysler meeting feeling positive.”

Although Chrysler is down, it's not out, she says. “This brand has the most potential, if everything is done straight and forthright.”

Chrysler must work with dealers to convey “the message that we are back,” says Bill Kelly Sr., dealer principal at two Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge stores in Pennsylvania. “Some people think we're still in bankruptcy.”

He worries about losing customers. “People drop off their cars at the end of the leases and then they leave without buying something else,” he says.

It's partly because of the absence of an attractive lease plan and partly because Chrysler's problems have spooked consumers, Kelly says. “Something has to be done to prevent the owner base from leaving in droves.”

Chrysler needs to once again offer generous incentives to consumers, Eddy says. “We are used to an incentive package that sells the deal. Buyers are loyal because they like the deal. Incentives keep dealers profitable, although they don't always help the manufacturers.”

Still, he says, he would welcome the day when the product is so strong it sells itself.

Eddy says he is excited about new products, such as the Italian-made Fiat 500 and freshened versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Charger.

“But the five months before we get those vehicles will be a grind,” he says. “I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I just don't like the long length of the tunnel.”

If Chrysler comes back, dealers should get some of the credit, he adds. “Chrysler dealers are the toughest around. We have had to fight for everything we get.”