Commentary

Could Cerberus succeed where Ford and others have failed?

Maybe – if it can do a better job of piecing together a difficult puzzle while avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Ford officially has placed Land Rover and Jaguar on the block, and Cerberus, the private equity firm that is close to buttoning up a controlling stake in Chrysler, is rumored among potential bidders.

Ford is desperate to jettison the operations because its shaky financial position is making it impossible to fund a future for the British luxury car and SUV marques, and new CEO Alan Mulally considers them too big a distraction at a time when his crucial North American operations hang so precariously in the balance.

Some analysts estimate Jaguar and Land Rover could be had for $1.5 billion or less – a pittance compared with the combined $5.5 billion Ford initially paid for the two and the countless billions lost since then.

But coming up with the purchase price is easy. More difficult will be resolving fundamental issues long plaguing the U.K. auto makers – even for a deep-pocketed Cerberus.

On the surface, Jaguar and Land Rover appear solid fits with Chrysler. Jag doesn’t exactly have Mercedes’ pedigree, but it could fill some of the void resulting from the DaimlerChrysler breakup, giving Chrysler another brand up the car market price ladder. Similarly, Land Rover’s upscale SUVs, renowned worldwide for their off-road prowess, could take up right where Jeep leaves off.

But to succeed, Cerberus would have to learn from Ford’s gaffes, and it would need to avoid the same missteps DaimlerChrysler took in failing to blend its American and German operations and cultures.

Running Jaguar, Land Rover and Chrysler as separate units wouldn’t work in the long run. The volumes aren’t there for the British brands, and the cost of independently developing platforms and powertrains – including advanced diesels and hybrids – makes for a prohibitive business case.

Full collaboration would be a must, with the three sharing entire vehicle architectures, not just pieces here or there, while deftly maintaining individual brand identities. Jaguar and Chrysler would have to find a way to team up on rear-drive and small-car platforms better than Daimler and Chrysler did. Land Rovers would have to be spun more cost-effectively from Jeep and Dodge SUVs.

Forget trying to save Jaguar and Land Rover on volume alone. Flooding the market, as Ford tried with the ill-conceived Jag X-Type, isn’t the answer. Building brand equity with the right products and gaining ground in emerging markets – not simply ramming more sales through U.S. and U.K. dealers – will be critical.

Finally, all three cultures would need to be blended together, a Rubik’s-cube-like management challenge if ever there was one. A miss here and the result is just another shotgun marriage doomed to create more friction than chemistry.

It’s a tough formula, which is why Land Rover and Jaguar are where they are.

Getting it right – whoever the buyer – will determine whether the sale marks a new beginning for the two U.K. auto makers or the beginning of the end.

dzoia@wardsauto.com