Chrysler's coming product offensive

sergio_marchionne.gi.top.jpg By Alex Taylor III, senior editor


(Fortune) -- Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne must have gotten tired of all those questions about Chrysler's empty product pipeline.

Because in a conference call with analysts and the media this week, he laid out Chrysler's launch schedule for the rest of 2010 and dropped some hints about 2011.

If the pipeline isn't exactly gushing, it is pumping a lot harder than most people expected.

Reported Deutsche Bank: "Within the first quarter, Chrysler admittedly progressed better than our expectations."

Ten months ago, the authoritative "Car Wars" report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch's John Murphy forecast that Chrysler would be replacing only 9% of its sales volume in model year 2011 with just two redesigned models: The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 300.

His conclusion: "Chrysler's product pipeline is dubious and likely to drive market share losses."

In fact, Marchionne is promising 14 all-new or refreshed products the rest of this year, and says 75% of Chrysler's product line will be "touched" in 2010.

To be sure, some of the changes will be mostly cosmetic. "Think grille texture, tail lamps, minor trim changes," advises AutoPacific marketing consultant George Peterson.

Other alterations, though, will be more substantial. Marchionne grumped that to merely call the changes "refreshes" is "an insult."

Here's the rundown:

Dodge gets a new crossover SUV based on the Grand Cherokee and a redone Charger off the 300.

The much-maligned (for its styling and its bargain-basement fittings) Dodge Charger and Chrysler Sebring gets an improved suspension and a fresh interior.

Other vehicles getting makeovers include the Chrysler and Dodge minivans and three Jeeps: Wrangler, Patriot, and Compass.

The petite Fiat 500 will be arriving on schedule at the end of the year.

And Marchionne disclosed some details about a new Fiat-engineered compact car coming in 2011. He said the engineering work has been done and "we are 98% there on styling."

Marchionne doesn't give many one-on-one interviews, but in each of his conference calls and presentations, he reveals a little more of himself.

He clearly has a passion for the automotive business but he is remarkably clear-eyed when it comes to the hard realities. And he has a way of expressing himself, devoid of platitudes and generalities, that quickly cuts to the heart of an issue.

He described competition in the market as "vicious" and said he approached his job with "discipline and humility."

When was the last time you heard a CEO use the word "humility?"

For those who had any lingering doubts about the cost of more efficient engines, he pointed out that the tiny 1.4 liter four-cylinder manufactured by Fiat with so-called Multiair technology costs more to make than Chrysler's massive 6.2 liter V-8.

And he publicly talks about the number of cars that Chrysler sells to fleets with a guaranteed repurchase price -- a widely abused industry practice. He says it is only a fraction of its total fleet business, which he says is in line with industry practice of roughly 25% of total sales.

Marchionne appears to have Chrysler aligned toward the right goals and focused on results. Having been through bankruptcy, its balance sheet is clean and its costs are under control. It can operate profitably at just 74% capacity.

Marchionne figures Chrysler needs to sell 1.65 million cars this year in order to make money -- a figure that should be well within reach, barring economic cataclysm.

And despite his manic work schedule -- running two troubled automakers on two continents -- he keeps his sense of humor.

Asked by one analyst how he get Chrysler to 10% U.S. market share (it is currently at 9.1%), he replied: "Work really hard." To top of page