Posted by: David Welch on January 12, 2010
There’s no doubt about it. Chrysler brand is going Euro. While the struggling carmaker didn’t have a press conference to unveil new models at the Detroit auto show, they did put up one new idea on their show stand. Chrysler—or more appropriately Fiat-Chrysler—took the Delta hatchback from Fiat’s tony European Lancia brand, fashioned a Chrysler brand nose and grille on it and put it out there to get feedback at the show.
It’s not necessarily for production, Olivier Francois, the French head of Chrysler brand told me. It’s really an exercise to show where the Chrysler brand is headed. And it looks like Chrysler’s namesake brand will get a heavy dose of European flair. In a round table meeting with the motoring press, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said that in a few years, the product lines for Chrysler and Lancia will be married up. That means the Chrysler brand will soon be selling Lancia’s premium sedans, coupes and hatchbacks. Lancia could get Chrysler vehicles like the 300 sedan or Town and Country minivan to sell in Europe. “On Chrysler-Lancia, these are two brands that will share completely a common destiny,” Marchionne said. “They will share completely their product portfolio.”
That’s not the only way the Italians are bringing European culture to Chrysler. Fiat-Chrysler’s auto show stand turned heads and generated buzz at the auto show with leggy, scantily-clad models. The Lancia–Chrysler concept car was accompanied by models wearing gold-toned mini dresses that covered the bare minimum. The tiny Fiat 500 was surrounded by models strutting around in thigh-high leather go-go boots. It wasn’t in poor taste, but it is more risqué than Americans have seen at the Detroit auto show for many years. That kind of thing is a mainstay at venues like the Paris Auto Show. Not so in America’s industrial heartland. Francois told me that he wasn’t trying to sex it up. That’s just what he does in Europe. Says Francois: “I’m doing here what I know from there.”
The models turned heads, but giving Chrysler some allure will be a bigger challenge than sparking chatter among coffee-addled automotive writers. Dressing Lancia cars up as a Chrysler models will be a head snap. The brand that sells the gangsterish 300 sedan, retro PT Cruiser and posh Town and Country would then get small luxury cars designed for Europeans. Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of Edmunds.com, says the idea isn’t completely daft for the Chrysler brand because it doesn’t really have much of an image. That gives the Italians a clean canvas. A slate of Lancia models could help it start anew, he said. He has a real point.
But the Town and Country, 300 and PT Cruiser all have one thing (and only one thing) in common. They make very American statements. A Lancia with a Chrysler grille does not. On a positive note, I think the car looked pretty good. But the brand will get a makeover that will be a real departure from what most Americans think of Chrysler. The cars will need to have some substance to make it work.