Earlier this week, we reported on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles chief Sergio Marchionne’s assessment of the Chrysler 200 and how it strangely seemed to be in the past tense. After labeling the car a failure, and conceding that the company cribbed its roofline from Hyundai, we mused: “While Marchionne’s candor is refreshing, we doubt FCA dealers are happy to be stuck selling a car for at least the next three years that’s been publicly labeled a failure by the boss.” And after going over a few of his previous well-timed gaffes, we concluded: “In those instances, Marchionne’s carefully candid statements could be used as leverage in future negotiations. With his remarks about the 200, we’re left wondering how he plans on spinning this one.”
Now, just days after Marchionne’s public kiss of death, we know that by 2018, the 200 and its platform-mate the Dodge Dart will be no more.
Like a quarterback under pressure, the company is calling plays on the fly, and all but tearing up its well-publicized 2014-’18 “Five Year Plan” playbook. Marchionne hinted that big changes would be coming earlier in the month, but today we know just how much FCA’s future deviates from recent plans. Namely: Cars and Alfa Romeo are on the outs, SUVs and crossovers are in. For the company’s sake, let’s make sure gas prices stay low.
The Dart and 200 were introduced for 2013 and 2015 respectively, and were meant to represent a fresh start for the brands which were hit hard by the one-two punch of the economic recession and Chrysler’s bankruptcy. But from the outset, both cars had glaring faults that FCA seemed to have little interest in fixing. For the 200, its difficult rear-seat access and unrefined powerplant doomed it to also-ran status in a field with fun-to-drive competitors like the Mazda6, Honda Accord, and Ford Fusion.
And while the midsize sedan segment is contracting, the Dart’s compact segment is only getting more competitive. Up against cars like the Mazda3, Chevy Cruze, and Ford Focus, the Dart’s absence of a hatchback version and lackluster performance make it seem like a relic before its time. The Dart SXT with Mopar Package even made our list of 2015’s worst performance packages, with our Micah Wright left wondering: “Where’s the Dodge Dart of the 1970s, when it was both dangerous and fun to drive?”
FCA’s strategy for Alfa Romeo has also been dramatically scaled back. While its plan to introduce eight all-new models worldwide and sell 400,000 cars annually by 2018 seemed optimistic at best, the reality now looks much different for the storied Italian marque. After several delays in launching its BMW 5-Series-fighting Giulia, we now know that it will enter production in March 2017, with a long-awaited SUV model joining it by the end of that year. All other Alfa models have now been pushed back to between 2017 and 2020.
If you’re a Jeep or Ram fan, however, this updated plan could be music to your ears. The SUV and truck divisions are set to get priority as fuel prices drop, the economy grows, and Americans snap up big vehicles like it’s 1999. According to Marchionne, fuel prices are “not expected to fundamentally change directionally,” and the company believes that “there’s been a permanent shift toward SUVs and pickups” in America. To us, this reliance on big, thirsty vehicles sounds eerily similar to the ’90s-era plan that got GM in big trouble last decade. Plus, gasoline is a finite resource. With the geopolitical climate being what it is right now, would you really want to put that much faith in the long-term stability in oil-producing countries?
According to company CFO Richard Palmer: “Jeep is the bedrock of this business plan.” On top of the previously announced new pickup, and flagship Grand Wagoneer, a diesel-powered Wrangler will be joining the Jeep lineup between 2018 and 2022. And while the company is currently the only major American automaker without a hybrid model, it will introduce its semi-electric powertrain on the upcoming Chrysler Pacifica minivan, with the technology proliferating across its model lines — including to the Wrangler and Ram 1500 — within the next five years. The Sterling Heights Assembly, currently home to the Dart and 200, will be converted to build the next-generation Ram 1500 pickup, and using existing plants, FCA is hoping to increase Jeep global production from the 1.2 million of 2015, to over 2 million by 2018.
While the industry as a whole is moving away from sedans and toward hybrids, crossovers, SUVs, and pickups, FCA’s plan still strikes us as reactionary. For a company whose hybrid powertrains are unproven, focusing on larger vehicles in the face of rising CAFE standards seems to be quite the risk. Those cheap gas prices we all love are one recession, natural disaster, or war away from skyrocketing right back to where they were four years ago. Should FCA really rely on prices holding until 2020 while virtually every other automaker switches over to hybrids or smaller fuel-sipping powerplants? This change of focus could yield big results in the short term, but we’re not sure how it’ll shake out in the long run.
But maybe that’s the point. Marchionne spent the better part of 2015 trying to merge FCA with another automaker. He seems to have dropped the subject for now, but by inflating the company’s profits quickly, he may find a more willing partner (or outright buyer) a year or so down the road. Of the Big Three, Marchionne certainly makes FCA the most interesting of the trio. With this new plan, it’ll be interesting to see where it is in five years.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.