DETROIT -- Chrysler Group will refine its product strategy this week with a slew of new models from Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat and Alfa Romeo in a marathon strategic briefing Tuesday in Auburn Hills.
Among other news, expect:
- A redefinition of Dodge centered on American muscle.
- Only the Chrysler brand will sell the next generation of the minivan. The product-starved brand will add models in segments where it doesn't currently compete.
- Jeep to announce plans for new vehicles built and engineered in America, along with added production of the Cherokee and Renegade in Asia and Latin America.
- Ram to add more commercial vehicles.
- Alfa Romeo to introduce several new models in 2015-16, with more to follow as the brand strives for a broad model line to compete with Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus and other leading luxury brands.
- New models to advance Fiat's evolution into a specialist in small, creatively styled cars and crossovers. First up, the 500X small crossover SUV in 2015.
- Ferrari to commit to new cars in new segments, but the exotic car specialist will never build a four-door car.
- Maserati to announce plans for more high-end luxury cars and crossovers.
The sweeping rethinking of Fiat and Chrysler's brands carries significant risks.
Can the Chrysler brand increase sales enough to make up for the loss of vehicles like the Dodge Avenger midsize sedan and Grand Caravan minivan? With only three vehicles bearing the Chrysler badge today, there's plenty of room for growth.
"The Chrysler division has been in dire need of a solid brand definition," independent auto analyst Michelle Krebs said. "Every owner of Chrysler has struggled with what the Chrysler nameplate means. The division, if it is to exist in the future, is also in need of substantial new product."
How does the idea of American muscle translate into a model line that extends beyond performance cars like the Charger and Challenger? The brand is rumored to be in line for a number of crossovers, but it's hard to see how they contribute an image of brawn, style and affordable performance.
"It can be done, but it will require sophisticated and unique ideas for how to translate 'American Muscle' to a broad audience," Edmunds.com senior analyst Bill Visnic said. "If they do it well, Dodge could reach out to a group of buyers nobody else is speaking to."
Does Fiat know how to develop the great sporty vehicles Alfa Romeo needs? There's no evidence to support that in the 28 years since Fiat bought Alfa. Fiat's multiple reboots of Alfa's new-model wasted precious time, but lately the rumors leaking out of Italy sound promising.
Expect sport sedans, wagons and crossovers to compete with models like the Cadillac ATS, BMW X3 and Lexus GS. We should also learn whether the plan to build a new Alfa Spider roadster with Mazda will happen, or if Alfa will develop the convertible in house.
Will Fiat dealers in the U.S. ever have enough models to support themselves? The 500X crossover, which shares some underpinnings with the upcoming Jeep Renegade, will help, but Fiat needs several unique and appealing new vehicles.
"We need more Fiat models, and we need them quickly," said Carl Galeana, who has Chrysler, Dodge Jeep, Ram and Fiat dealerships in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida. "Fiat customers are very engaged and enthusiastic, but we need more vehicles."
Can Maserati grow from 15,000 sales worldwide last year to 50,000 in 2014 and into six figures next decade? Maserati's growth has been impressive in the last few years, and there's plenty of open space for the brand to grow as it enters niches where it doesn't compete now.
Will Fiat Chrysler do a better job delivering on Tuesday's promises than it did on the five-year plan Marchionne delivered in Auburn Hills on Nov. 4, 2009? Some of those cars and trucks never made it off the drawing board.
There's reason for optimism. Nobody foresaw the prolonged European recession that constrained product development funds in Italy. Fiat conserved cash, delayed projects and slowed vehicle introductions at Chrysler Group.
Fiat and Chrysler executives, engineers and product planners understand each other far better today than they did in 2009. This plan should be more refined and focused than the first, which essentially threw everything at the wall to see what stuck.
"There was a lot of shooting from the hip in the first plan," Visnic said. "This time around, people expect more information."
The greatest outstanding question is whether the newly formed group can develop cars and crossovers that buyers simply cannot ignore.
The record is mixed so far. The Jeep Cherokee looks like a hit, but the Dodge Dart has not met expectations. It's too early to assess the 2015 Chrysler 200 that will reach dealerships this summer. The combination of Chrysler platforms with Fiat engines and transmissions has been a boon to models like the Ram pickup, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.
Chrysler needs a string of hits that combine unique design and engineering creativity with class-leading fuel economy and quality.
The first five years of Fiat's partnership with Chrysler were about rescuing the American automaker from collapse. Despite some stumbles, the results are better than most people would have predicted when Marchionne laid out the first plan to a skeptical world.
Chapter 2 begins Tuesday, as Marchionne's team works to make Fiat and Chrysler more than the sum of their parts with sharply defined brands and significantly expanded model lines