Commentary

My son has a T-shirt that says, “Due to budget constraints, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.”

With Ford and General Motors now showing a pulse and rolling out lots of interesting new products, from the Fiesta and Focus small cars at Ford to the Chevy Equinox cross/utility vehicle, Buick Regal and others at GM, it’s getting easier every day to be hopeful about their respective futures.

But for outsiders, at least, the outlook for Chrysler seems much more uncertain. The light at the end of Chrysler’s tunnel appears to have been turned off for budgetary reasons.

Ironically, insiders say that is not true. Chrysler is making furious progress they say, adding it is meshing far more successfully with Fiat than it did with former partner Daimler. “We already are more integrated with Fiat than we ever were with Mercedes,” a Chrysler executive tells me at the recent Detroit auto show.

Chrysler is promising 21 new or revamped vehicles by 2014 and big sales gains along the way. Chrysler designers confirm they have a lot of projects that are done or in-progress that they’d love to show off but can’t because “that’s not how Fiat does things.”

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is secretive about new products, and his press conferences leave reporters little red meat to chew on.

Tightly guarding future product normally is appropriate, but these are not normal times. Taxpayers funded the Obama Admin.’s bailout of Chrysler and they are getting more critical by day of the President’s decision to do so.

If Chrysler wants to avoid an angry mob of American voters pulling the financial rug out from under during November’s midterm elections, it must revert to The Standardized Chrysler Crisis Playbook.

Honed over three decades, the Playbook calls for the auto maker to invite journalists and Wall Street analysts into its design dome, swear them to secrecy and then pull back the curtain and give them an advance peek at prototypes of new products it will be launching down the road.

In the past, journalists and automotive analysts have been impressed by the new sheet metal. As well they should have been. They saw the Chrysler K-cars, revolutionary minivans, LH sedans and so on through to the more recent PT Cruiser and Chrysler 300.

Even though the stories and analyses coming from these visits could not be specific, the tone became optimistic, rather than critical, because Chrysler showed hard proof great products were in the pipeline.

As time went on, the positive buzz got louder, the economy improved, consumers got excited and Chrysler enjoyed booming sales.

This has been the script for at least three turnarounds since the early 1980s, because Chrysler always manages to create innovative cars and trucks when it is on the verge of liquidation.

We know Chrysler is working on some great stuff now, and Marchionne needs to show it to us soon. Not because journalists or Wall Street want it, but because cutthroat American politics demand the light at the end of the Chrysler tunnel officially be turned back on.

dwinter@wardsauto.com