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Chrysler & Fiat Planning Major Roll-Out in Geneva

Makers set to underscore breadth of trans-Atlantic partnership.

by on Jan.31, 2011

With a Lancia badge on the grille, the new Chrysler 300 will take another bow at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show.

While there are dozens of new product roll-outs scheduled for the upcoming Geneva Motor Show, Chrysler and its Italian ally Fiat hope to steal much of the thunder with an assortment of new offerings set to underscore the breadth of their fast-growing, trans-Atlantic partnership.

Perhaps the most significant of the pair’s previews will be the debut of the Lancia Thema, an all-new flagship for the Fiat subsidiary, and a replacement for a top-line model that has been missing from the Lancia line-up for some time, said Olivier Francois, brand manager for both the Lancia and Chrysler brands, during an interview with TheDetroitBureau.com.

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While the executive hinted there will be other offerings coming, he acknowledged that the Geneva event also will see the debut of a new version of the Chrysler Voyager, the European version of the American Town & Country minivan, as well as the new Chrysler 200 and the Lancia Ypsilon, the first model for that brand based on the popular Fiat 500 microcar.

Significantly, the Ypsilon will share many of the design and engineering changes developed for the U.S. version of the little 500 coupe, which is just beginning to roll into U.S. showrooms. (Click Here for TheDetroitBureau.com’s review of the Fiat 500.)

Chrysler and Fiat officials declined to discuss whether their Geneva news conference will bring the debut of a hybrid-powered version of the Lancia Thema.  Last month, CEO Sergio Marchionne revealed plans for a new gas-electric powertrain, which will be used in a variety of models, including the 300 and Chrysler’s various minivans.  It is also expected to make its way to Europe, at some point, in the Thema, which will be built at the Chrysler plant outside Toronto.

As part of their global alliance, the U.S. maker is taking the lead in developing battery-based vehicles.

“This is the beauty of the partnership,” said the Parisian-born Francois, referring to the way Chrysler and Fiat are rapidly cross-pollinating each other’s line-up.

The Lancia version of the 300 will be familiar to Americans, save for the Lancia badge on the grille.  There will be other subtle changes reflecting the different needs and desires of European customers, including the availability of a diesel engine.  But he stressed that the underlying platform was engineered to deliver a more European-style road feel, notably including a “more taught suspension…that allows us to sell is as a premium car in Europe.”

While the remake of the 300 was already well underway by the time Fiat took a controlling stake in Chrysler, as it emerged from its 2009 bankruptcy, the Italian maker was struggling to figure out a way to bring a Thema model back into the Lancia line-up.  The brand simply didn’t anticipate enough volume to justify the huge cost of doing the program on its own.

“It never would have paid back” the development costs without sharing the project with Chrysler, stressed Francois.

Asked whether European buyers will accept the idea of a Chrysler badged as a Lancia, the executive insisted that platform sharing is quickly becoming the norm in the automotive world, and that the car will be judged on its merits, not on its country of origin.

Indeed, sharing the bones of the Thema with another maker isn’t unique.  The previous model was the result of a partnership that also generated the platform for the old Saab 9-5.

Most makers are taking similar steps, whether they partner with other manufacturers, or share platforms globally, as Ford is doing.  The maker’s new Global C-Car platform, for example, will provide the underpinnings for 10 distinct new models – including the all-new Focus, which will be sold in Europe, North America and other markets,

Fiat and Chrysler aim to overcome lingering resistance to their strategy by marketing their products to Europeans as “the best of both worlds,” an approach the partners will likely echo, in some form, as they ramp up their global offerings in the U.S. over the next several years.

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