TROY, MI – Chrysler LLC’s decision to put its Dodge Viper business under “strategic review” marks a watershed moment for niche products, according to analysts and industry insiders.

Niche vehicles and boutique brands represent opportunities for investors “outside the established mainstream,” suggests Scott Merlis, managing director of Michigan-based consultancy, Ducker Worldwide.

As an example, Merlis cites Prodrive Ltd.’s 2007 acquisition of Aston Martin, for which the motorsports company paid Ford Motor Co. $925 million.

General Motors Corp.’s Hummer brand represents a similar investment opportunity, Merlis adds, noting the rugged SUV brand – currently being shopped around by the Detroit auto maker – might be attractive to an emerging-market entity in the way India-based Tata Motors Ltd. was drawn to acquire the Jaguar and Land Rover brands from Ford earlier this year.

“It’s interesting that (Chrysler) announced it,” Merlis says, referring to a statement issued today by Chrysler. The auto maker’s candor suggests it may be having trouble closing a deal to unload the vaunted sports-car program, he adds.

Chrysler says only that its Viper business is under “strategic review” as the auto maker “focuses on enhancing its core business and leveraging its assets.”

“We have been approached by third parties who are interested in exploring future possibilities for Viper,” Chairman and CEO Bob Nardelli says in a statement. “We have agreed to listen to these parties. We will do so, keeping in mind the best interests of those who have shown tremendous support for the vehicle – including employees, suppliers, dealers and a worldwide group of loyal Viper owners and enthusiasts.”

Chrysler’s intent, Nardelli adds, is rooted in a commitment to “offer strong operational and financial support during any potential transaction, in order to ensure a future for the Viper business and perpetuate the legacy of this great vehicle.”

Meanwhile, veteran industry executive Vic Doolan acknowledges the potential significance of a deal involving the Viper. But he dismisses any notion that niche products and elite brands no longer have a place under the umbrella of full-line OEMs.

“They’re not selling because they want to; they’re selling because they have to,” says Doolan who joined Merlis here as a panelist for the Society of Automotive Analysts’ 5th annual strategic planning summit.

“Ford would have loved to have kept Aston and Jaguar,” says Doolan, who spent decades in various senior executive positions within the Ford organization.

Today, he is on the board of California-based niche-vehicle manufacturer Fisker Automotive Inc. As such, he sees the flip-side of the suggestion that niche players might become repositories for unwanted niche vehicles developed by mainstream auto makers.

If an OEM were seeking to establish a “green” image with a unique vehicle, it “may want to come to us (first),” Doolan says.

The Viper review comes as Chrysler is seeking to reconcile its product lineup with market trends under the auspices of a program dubbed “Project Genesis.” Vice Chairman and President Jim Press is leading the effort and is expected to give an update on its progress next month.