This past Thursday marked a year since the death of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ charismatic yet often enigmatic chairman, Sergio Marchionne. Marchionne led Fiat though its 2014 acquisition of Chrysler to take control of what would become the world’s seventh biggest automaker. Sergio’s tenure has been one of the more quixotic eras in the history of both Fiat and Chrysler, but he managed to identify a number of key industry trends that he never got to witness coming into their own.
Near the end of his tenure, Marchionne was not shy about looking for another partner to inject the capital and expertise into the FCA machine to open a new chapter in the company’s legacy.
Yes, his constant shopping of FCA to buyers at the time seemed a bit desperate and sad, but we’re left wondering how much of that was Marchionne concluding that FCA was an irredeemable basket case, and how much of that was Marchionne concluding that fundamentally all legacy automakers are irredeemable basket cases, languishing and moribund in the face of electrification and autonomy.
In 2015, just a year after the dust settled around the Fiat Chrysler marriage, Marchionne was already openly floating a deal with GM (which was quickly rebuffed). Now, a year after his passing, Fiat continues to pursue a new partner to help make the most of the value Marchionne managed to generate from his position at the top of FCA.
A merger with Renault may not have appealed to the Nissan or the French government, but Sergio knew what he was talking about when it came to consolidation among automakers. Since Marchionne made waves with the initial merger between Fiat and Chrysler, we have already seen automaker consolidation at the highest levels with PSA’s purchase of GM’s European business. Working together rather than competing directly has come to to be the name of the game now that every manufacturer is looking to grab a slice or two of the EV pie. Partnerships between VW and Ford and even arch-rivals BMW and Mercedes have shown that the challenges facing the industry as internal combustion slowly goes the way of the steam engine are just too big for any one manufacturer to go it alone. And that’s exactly what Sergio wanted, not just for Fiat, but for the the industry as a whole.
Marchionne was not entirely successful. Chrysler, or what’s left of it, is dwindling, stuck making virtually the same Chrysler 300 since the early 2000s. It has a new minivan, which is nice, I guess. But Marchionne was right about the industry as a whole, as laid out in a presentation FCA produced in a five-plus year effort to integrate the Chrysler and Fiat brands from an engineering and marketing standpoint.
No, not that Alfa Romeo would take over the world. But that a lot of cars would – and should, from a cold, hard, profits-above-all-else business standpoint.
Right off the bat, Sergio’s vision for Fiat and Chrysler didn’t seem to gain any traction. Alfa Romeo’s reentry into the US market started off with excitement, but it can’t seem to shake the gremlins that it was known for when it left North America in 1995. Fiat’s reentry into the American market is beginning to feel like a one hit wonder with a new 500 in limbo, and Lancia’s painful zombification, its gorgeous sports sedans giving way to rebadged Chryslers for Italian government offices and Roman cabbies, has been more than painful to watch, even from across the Atlantic.
At Chrysler, FCA management also had trouble bringing success to the mi0sized and compact segments. The Fiat-based Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 looked the part, but just couldn’t find enough homes outside rental parking lots, and both were unceremoniously dumped after fewer than four years on the market.
Like Daimler had learned in the 1990s when it tried to take over Chrysler, it isn’t simple to join two large automakers at the hip and expect them to run in sync. And it’s not something you can just force.
In the midst of all of these not insignificant missteps, Marchionne found the right formula for the stronger brands and model lines in the American market. While Fiat itself didn’t quite made the dent it wanted to in Mini’s dominance of the (admittedly shrinking) luxury-ish small car market, Abarth has made a deep impression on the American hot hatch community and we’re happy that we got it here.
Where Marchionne found even more success was with Chrysler’s larger vehicles. Ram Trucks and Jeeps. Ram, spun off from Dodge, continues to be a large source of revenue for FCA in the US, second only to Jeep. Since the merger, Jeep introduced a number of crossovers developed with Fiat’s small-car experience to market alongside its large SUVs, which have remained class leaders and attracted new competitors.
Of course not every success needs to be a complete revamp of a company’s business model. Sometimes simplicity is the key. Giving the go-ahead for Dodge (and Jeep) to take themselves a little less seriously than the competition and drop V8s with monstrous power figures into existing platforms was not a major component of FCA’s turnaround strategy, but it was definitely one of the loudest. Marchionne’s FCA knew how to turn buyer excitement around a halo model into increased sales across the Challenger line with the Hellcat in 2018, even though the Challenger is one of the oldest platforms still on the market today.
Will investment in a return to a segment that has been the venue for mixed success for Jeep in the past be another winner or loser for Marchionne’s vision?Sergio’s winning bets on Ram and Jeep culminated in the Jeep Gladiator, which the man himself didn’t live to see launch. FCA is banking on buyers overlooking what some have called a ”shockingly high” sticker price to have the only four-door convertible pickup on the market. Markup has the first Gladiators leaving the lot at nearly $20k over sticker, a good indicator that Sergio knew a winner when he saw one with the return of the Jeep pickup.
While an Agnelli or Iacocca he was not, Marchionne had a deep understanding of the importance of both Fiat and Chrysler’s histories and and an honest hope that the two companies could give one another what they needed to thrive.
And though he did not make it to see the opening of a new era of broad success for Fiat or Chrysler, Marchionne was the right man at the right time to steer FCA through a rebuilding period, rife with market challenges and product missteps.