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A bright future – with a few clouds on the horizon – as FCA reveals its five-year plan

Sergio Marchionne, CEO, Fiat Chrysler
Source: Paul Eisenstein

The tie was an immediate indication that something was out of the ordinary as Sergio Marchionne took to the stage, ready to deliver his overview of Fiat Chrysler Automobile's next five-year plan. He did nothing to hide the fact that he'd prefer to be wearing his trademark black sweater.

This, the 65-year-old executive later explained, was a special occasion. The architect of the Fiat and Chrysler merger was set to deliver on his long-standing promise to leave the Euro-American carmaker with no industrial debt.

Indeed, there was a celebratory tone to the meeting that drew a cadre of top execs, along with hundreds of analysts and media to the Alfa Romeo test track outside Milan on Friday, though the ever-pragmatic Marchionne was quick to stress that, "The true finish line is the one always yet to come."

That will be for a successor to figure out as Marchionne prepares to pass the reins of a radically different company from the one he helped stitch together as Detroit-based Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.

Ford May sales up 0.7%, Fiat Chrysler sales up 11%

For one thing, the two brands that give the automaker its name will be greatly diminished going forward. Chrysler is largely limited to building "people-movers," like its Pacifica minivan, for the U.S. market. Fiat, meanwhile, will be dropping most of its mainstream products, focusing primarily on electrified city cars. There had been speculation it might even pull out of the U.S. market, but it will remain an even smaller player than today, largely competing with Daimler's Smart brand, which is itself going all-electric.

Jeep's growth story

As the head of the most promising marque, Jeep boss Mike Manley led off the day-long session, outlining an array of new SUVs, large and small, that will be added to its lineup. These range from a new mini-Jeep up to a full-size, three-row model reviving the once-popular Grand Wagoneer nameplate. There will also be new variants, including a line of extreme "Desert Hawk" models. And Jeep also will get its first pickup in decades.

Guests drive a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon on a simulated off-road course at the Chicago Auto Show on February 8, 2018 in Chicago.
Getty Images

The brand has seen its sales grow from 730,000 in 2013 to an estimated 1.9 million this year.

Despite the robust pace, it actually fell short of its most optimistic expectations. The brand has struggled in China, where it only recently began production, Manley said. Nonetheless, Jeep remains ambitious as it pushes forward its globalization plan.

Jeep now accounts for one out of every 17 utility vehicles sold worldwide. It wants that to be closer to one in 12 at the end of the new five-year plan, but Manley said his real — albeit long-shot — goal is an astounding one in five.

That's all the more significant when one considers just how fast the utility market is growing. In the U.S., which has led this historical shift, "utes" now account for more than half of all new vehicle sales — with pickups and vans bringing the light truck segment overall up to about 70 percent. And other markets, including Europe and China, are rapidly catching up.

No mainstream automaker has been more aggressive in capitalizing on this trend. FCA has discontinued the last two of its American-made passenger car models, the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart, converting their factories to produce new Jeeps and Ram pickups. Ram is also in line to get more product, officials revealed on Friday, including a new midsize truck targeting a segment that had, only a few years ago, been written off for dead.

Maserati and Alfa Romeo 'trucks'

Then again, a few years ago, few would have expected to see "trucks" roll off the assembly lines of Maserati and Alfa Romeo, the other two global brands that were highlighted at the "FCA Capital Day" event.

Maserati shows off their Alfieri concept car during the media preview at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) on January 13, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan.
Getty Images

The two Italian marques won't abandon passenger cars entirely. Maserati, for one, will soon get a production version of the sleek Alfieri sports car that was a hit at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show. While that may plant a halo over the brand, the real volume will come from the two SUVs Maserati will soon be building. Its first-ever, the Levante, already accounts for 53 percent of its volume — which jumped to 50,000 last year, a roughly 550 percent jump since FCA was formed.

Alfa Romeo recently launched its first "ute," the Stelvio, and soon will offer two more.

Alfa's sales are growing, but nowhere near as fast as expected. Marchionne said he underestimated the challenges of reviving the nearly dead brand — especially once German luxury competitors decided to "fight back."

Challenges ahead

That's just one challenge FCA could be facing if it hopes to deliver on the big jump in sales, earnings and dividends it is promising as part of its five-year plan.

For his part, Marchionne insisted this "secular move away from cars" is as close to permanent as possible.

Joe Phillippi, head of AutoTrends Consulting, said he agreed, noting that the fuel economy of light trucks has improved so dramatically that it makes relatively little difference anymore.

FCA, like virtually all of its competitors, hopes to make mileage a non-issue by boosting the use of electrified powertrain technologies. The brand was a laggard until the recent launch of the plug-in hybrid version of its Pacifica minivan. It has developed a modular system that can be fitted together in a variety of ways to create 12 different types of electrified drivelines, from mild hybrids to pure battery-electric vehicles.

Jeep, for example, plans to offer at least one battery-based option for every model by the end of the plan in 2022. And that Maserati Alfieri sports car will use a plug-in hybrid system that will allow it to operate in zero-emission mode — or launch from 0 to 100 kmh (62 mph) in barely two seconds.

FCA is also counting on the Trump administration's planned rollback of the 54.5 mile-per-gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard set during the Obama administration, noted Mark Chernoby, the automaker's chief technical compliance officer.

Where the White House might giveth, however, it may be ready to taketh away. The import tariffs President Donald Trump is proposing could cripple demand for imports, especially luxury vehicles like those from Maserati and Alfa.

Marchionne downplayed "belligerent statements … made for political purposes." He said he was confident there would be a "happy middle ground (once) this game plays out completely."

During a recent meeting with top automotive leaders, Trump called Marchionne his "favorite" CEO, so the FCA chief likely has reason to hope suasion can work.

One possible resolution would be to offset imports with automotive exports.

"That would be fine," he said, suggesting that Fiat Chrysler could take steps to ship more U.S.-made products abroad, perhaps simply by shifting production plans.

Of course, Marchionne might also say, "Not my problem."

A search for a successor

He currently intends to stay on only through this year before retiring. There has been some speculation that the FCA board might try to convince him to stay on longer, but Chairman John Elkann — the heir to the Agnelli family, which founded Fiat and still holds a controlling stake — said a "very serious" search for Marchionne's successor is underway.

It is widely expected the next CEO will be promoted from within, with Phillippi and other analysts predicting the job is Jeep/Ram boss Manley's to lose.

Elkann also scotched another matter of intense speculation. Almost from the day FCA was formed, Marchionne said a key goal was finding another alliance partner. But, rejected by such potential targets as General Motors and Nissan, he said FCA would go it alone.

The statement led to speculation that Elkann and the FCA board might just be buying time, waiting for a buyer to come along.

Indeed, last year, the automaker's Chinese manufacturing partner, GAC, hinted it might be interested in buying at least the Jeep brand. It later backed away from that idea.

"For the last 50 years, my family has aimed to strengthen this company, and that is my aim today," said Elkann, as the daylong meeting started winding down. "I have never seen a brighter future, and with (it), I cannot envision myself or the family being in a position to sell the company."

Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by Fiat Chrysler.