A CHAT WITH FCA CEO SERGIO MARCHIONNE ON FUTURE PRODUCTS

From NAIAS, talking Jeeps, minivans, Ram pickups, small cars, and tweets

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As the public continues to enjoy the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, we look back at some of the product news from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and its outspoken CEO Sergio Marchionne. He addressed a lot of vehicles in the product line, ranging from high-end Jeeps and Ram pickups to the future of small cars and electric autonomous minivans. And while FCA did not unveil anything new at the 2017 Detroit show, Marchionne said don’t read anything into it. “We will be back in Detroit showing stuff next year, I promise you.”

Here is a list of product updates we know you care about.

Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer

The good news: the Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer are still in the works, despite reports that prematurely foretold their demise. The interesting news: plans have been dropped to stretch the Grand Cherokee’s unibody underpinnings to create a high-end Grand Wagoneer to compete against the Range Rover. Instead, the Wagoneer and higher-trim Grand Wagoneer will be body-on-frame SUVs derived from the next-generation Ram light-duty pickup truck, built at the Warren Truck Assembly plant that makes the Ram 1500 now. That shifts the competitive crosshairs to the Chevrolet Tahoe or Toyota Sequoia—higher volume but less pricey vehicles.

Jeep Grand Cherokee moving to Alfa Romeo RWD Platform

2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk front three quarters 04

With the decision to not have the Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer share a platform with the Grand Cherokee, the next-generation Grand Cherokee will shift gears and move to a new platform. The plan is to have the Jeep migrate to Alfa Romeo’s rear-drive Giorgio platform used by the Giulia and which will also be used for the Stelvio SUV and other future products requiring rear- and all-wheel drive. Marchionne said the Jeep would adopt an “evolution” of that Alfa platform, presumably a reference to adding true four-wheel-drive capability. The plan will proceed “unless something happens in the next 60 days that suggests it is not doable.” Grand Cherokee will continue to be built at the Jefferson plant in Detroit and the automaker is trying to figure out how to build more of them to meet demand.

Ram Heavy Duty

Building the Wagoneer as a body-on-frame truck at the Warren Truck plant creates capacity to move Ram Super Duty production to Michigan in the future if the Trump Administration introduces a border tax that makes it financially necessary to stop building the pickups in Mexico. Marchionne said he needs clarity on Trump’s trade policies before any decisions are made to pull out of Mexico but if large tariffs are imposed on imports, “it will make production of anything in Mexico uneconomical. We would have to withdraw. It’s quite possible.”

Ram 1500

The new Ram 1500 will hopefully be released next year in January, Marchionne said. Production is moving from the Warren Truck Plant to the retooled Sterling Heights plant, also in Michigan, with assembly to start in 2018. The plant has free space because it was home to small car production but FCA no longer builds the Dodge Dart or Chrysler 200.

Jeep Wrangler and pickup

Jeep Wrangler Pickup Side

The next-generation Jeep Wrangler is less than 12 months out, Marchionne confirmed. It will be built in Toledo, as will the new Jeep Wrangler pickup. For a short time, FCA will build both the current and new Wrangler simultaneously to feed demand.

Chrysler 200

FCA has stopped building the poor-selling Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200, confirming they were bad investments in a crowded, shark-infested market with low returns. “I can tell you right now that both the Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Dart, as great products as they were, were the least financially rewarding enterprises that we’ve carried out inside FCA in the last eight years. I don’t know one investment decision that was as bad as these two were.” He had been looking for someone to continue making small cars for them, preferably a non-U.S.-based production site. But even that is now on the back burner, he said, as he awaits clarity on Trump actions against vehicles imported into the country.

Electric minivan and future of Dodge Grand Caravan

Chrysler showed the Portal electric autonomous minivan concept at CES. In Detroit Marchionne said it represents the next generation of minivans and could go into production after 2018. It would be built in Windsor, Ontario, which has made minivans since 1983 and makes the Chrysler Pacifica today as well as the older Dodge Grand Caravan. Marchionne also said he did not know how much longer Windsor would continue to build the Dodge minivan. “That is a point of heated debate on the inside of FCA. When we shut production of the Grand Caravan is not clear to us yet.” The Dodge is older and has limitations, but Marchionne said it is unlikely to go out of production this year. As for sales of the Chrysler Pacifica, he said levels are what he expected, noting it took 12 months for Grand Cherokee to get geared up and he recognizes the need for more affordable versions of the Pacifica to eventually replace the Dodge.

Waymo autonomous collaboration with Google

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid for Waymo front three quarter 02

FCA is not interested in doing this work in-house; Marchionne is happy to provide Chrysler Pacificas to Google’s self-driving project now called Waymo and learn from the experience, especially on how autonomous driving systems are integrated into vehicles. Having no preconceived notions of the outcome makes FCA an ideal partner, Marchionne said. He expects the relationship to grow.

Diesels

“Diesel has now acquired an incredibly bad reputation.” It was key to the development of transportation, especially in Europe, but going forward, the cost of diesels, fully loaded with scrubbing equipment for emissions, is going to push the price of diesels beyond the cost of gas and electric powertrains, Marchionne said. He expects diesels will be replaced as an economically viable solution because the cost for its use in passenger cars will be prohibitive. To move 80 percent of FCA’s diesel families to meet Euro 6 regulations is a half-billion euros investment, he said, and there is not a comparable massive investment required on the gasoline side. What will kill diesel is this continual drain on resources to keep offering it, although its usefulness is beyond doubt.

On tweeting

“If I ever start Tweeting, please shoot me.”