Fiat Spa, Which is Seeking to Set Up A North American vehicle assembly operation, has made at least one on-site inspection of Chrysler LLC's doomed plant in Newark, DE.

Chrysler has scheduled the plant for closure in 2009 as part of a restructuring initiative announced last year. Meanwhile, Fiat has announced it plans to market cars in the U.S. under its Alfa Romeo brand, in the 2010-2011 time frame.

Newark is home to production of the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen fullsize SUVs and, starting in August, their hybrid-electric cousins. According to information gleaned from multiple sources, a Fiat representative visited the plant in May and peppered Chrysler officials with questions about the site. A source also says there was a previous visit, but Ward's is unable to confirm.

An informed source says there is no impending deal, noting the 244-acre (99-ha) site went on the open market earlier last month.

Fiat spokesman Richard Gadeselli confirms no agreement exists and chides those who would speculate. Fiat's North American production plans for Alfa Romeo are “a completely open book,” he says. “An announcement is not imminent.”

Still, there have been European media reports about talks between Chrysler and Fiat. And key executives at Chrysler and Fiat have personal connections.

Chrysler Chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli acknowledges he knows Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, who attended the University of Windsor in Canada along with Chrysler Co-President and Vice Chairman Tom LaSorda.

But North America's excess assembly capacity has prospective partners “beating our door down,” Gadeselli cautions.He says Alfa Romeos will be assembled in North America as a hedge against currency exchange rates.

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