Posted by Dale Buss on December 23, 2011 05:01 PM
Three Christmases ago, Chrysler looked beaten. Always the feeblest of America's Big Three auto makers, Chrysler's ownership by Cerberus had been non-productive, and at the end of 2008 the company was caught badly with a lagging product line and in the midst of the biggest downdraft in U.S. auto sales in a half-century.
But within a few months, Fiat would come to Chrysler's rescue and accept the automaker's carcass from the U.S. government in a taxpayer bailout.
Now, Chrysler is returning the favor in a fashion. While Fiat's European operations are being dragged down by intense small-car competition in that market and, of course, the seeming collapse of the eurozone, as well as the fiscal troubles of Italy per se, Chrysler is experiencing an all-American renaissance that is helping keep its new owner from sinking too far.
Chrysler is on track to generate $3 billion in operating profit next year thanks to a dramatically lowered break-even point and the company's rising share of a rising U.S. vehicle market, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne recently told the Wall Street Journal. With improved engines, plusher interiors and new sheet metal, Chrysler has been winning back North American consumers at the fastest rate among the U.S. Big Three, and a continued flurry of overhauled models and new nameplates using help from Fiat is likely to extend Chrysler's recent gains.
Meanwhile, Fiat faces the third consecutive year of a sliding European new-vehicle market. Its products are aging, including those under the Lancia and Alfa Romeo brands. And Fiat's traditional reliance on production in its home country of Italy continues to be problematic.
Fiat isn't exactly bereft in Europe. For one thing, in February it will be introducing the latest version of its Panda minicar, the continent's most popular model in its segment. But new competition from Volkswagen is gaining traction in minicars.
And so this Christmas, as their executives exchange holiday greetings across the Atlantic, Fiat will be saying more to Chrysler than "Buon Natale!" There might also be an ample helping of "Grazie!"