What Is Fiat S.p.A.'s Grand Plan for Chrysler?

Fiat and Chrysler will announce a five-year plan next month. Here's what to expect.

Apr 28, 2014 at 7:44PM

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The Maserati Ghibli is Fiat Chrysler's alternative to the BMW 5 Series. Maserati's U.S. sales are up sharply this year. Photo credit: Fiat Chrylser

What's the deal with Fiat Chrysler (NASDAQOTH:FIATY)?

Its merger was five years in the making. Now that it's completed, the company is looking toward a listing on the New York Stock Exchange -- hopefully before the end of the year, it says.

When that happens, will the mashed-up Italian-American automaker be a buy?

I think we need more information before we know for sure. Fortunately, we're going to learn a lot more soon.

A new five-year plan for a newly merged company
CEO Sergio Marchionne is expected to announce the company's next five-year plan in May. It's widely expected that this is when Marchionne and his team will explain how they will take the disparate pieces and regional strengths of Fiat and Chrysler and turn them into cohesive parts of a truly global automaker.

We know some of what they'll say. There are plans to invest heavily in the Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands to create a full luxury lineup that can compete against BMW (NASDAQOTH:BAMXF) and Daimler's (NASDAQOTH:DDAIF) Mercedes-Benz brand -- and generate the kind of luxury-car margins that have made VW Group (NASDAQOTH:VLKAY) so profitable in recent years. (Some of that is already happening, and more is on the way soon.) 

There are plans, already unfolding, to turn Jeep into a major global brand. The new entry-level Jeep Renegade is a big part of those plans, as is a significant expansion into China.

I expect that Marchionne will move further forward with his plan for the Chrysler and Lancia brands to become regional twins, much like General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Buick and Opel brands, which are moving toward closely related model lineups sold as Buicks in North America and China and Opels in Europe. 

I expect that there will be a lot more under-the-skin parts-sharing across brands, in much the way that VW is able to build Volkswagens and Audis and even some Porsches on common architectures, saving millions in engineering costs.  

Mostly, I expect it to be an aggressive, ambitious plan, one that will raise eyebrows among analysts who see Fiat Chrysler's better-funded, more advanced competition as a huge headwind. 

But here's the thing: Marchionne's last five-year plan raised an awful lot of eyebrows, too, but he proceeded to do pretty much what he said he would. 

That should give the company more credibility this time around.

The last plan worked out better than most expected
Back in 2010, Marchionne said that Fiat would cut costs at already-cut-to-the-bone Chrysler, while overhauling its uncompetitive product line quickly and cheaply.

The world laughed, mostly. But then he (and his team at Fiat, and the battle-hardened folks at Chrysler) actually went and did it.

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The Jeep Grand Cherokee has been posting big sales (and big profits) for Fiat Chrysler. Photo credit: Fiat Chrysler 

Significant refreshes of the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 200, and other vehicles stopped short of the clean-sheet redos that many had thought would be necessary -- but they were made more stylish, more comfortable, more up-to-date, and nicer to drive.

Sales took off, and Chrysler started reporting steady profits.

That surprised quite a few analysts, including your humble Fool. It also bought Marchionne and his management team the benefit of the doubt. Their next five-year plan will get more serious consideration.

The upshot: I'm not investing yet, but I'm watching closely
There's still a lot that needs to be done. While some of Chrysler's recent all-new products were hits -- the Jeep Grand Cherokee, for instance --others were misses, like the not-quite-there Dodge Dart.

Fiat Chrysler needs a more consistent product-development effort. And it needs to manage its brands well: It's not enough to learn the parts-sharing lesson from VW; it also needs to learn how VW makes an Audi feel like an Audi despite all the VW parts. Its new Alfas and Maseratis need to deliver a convincing luxury-car experience, because their competitors will.

And Marchionne needs to explain more fully how the company plans to harness and build on its global scale.

But I won't be surprised if he makes a convincing case for all of that next month. Stay tuned.

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John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends BMW and General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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