Sergio Marchionne is on his victory lap as CEO of FCA with plans to retire in 2019. It was a more laid-back Marchionne answering questions over two days at the North American International Auto Show. Product updates are top of mind right now as he works with his management team to put the finishing touches on a five-year plan that will outline financial and product goals to 2022 and is expected to be unveiled on June 1. That date is the anniversary of when he joined Fiat in 2004. That could also be the date the board announces his successor from the current management team.
Here are some of the things we learned:
Alfa Romeo three-row crossover
How important is it to have a three-row crossover larger than the Stelvio? “Very,” he said. A larger Alfa CUV is in the new five-year plan, which means before 2022, he confirmed to Motor Trend. Large vehicles will remain popular for many years because powertrain solutions that combine electrification and combustion engines mean “you’re going to get mileage you’ve never seen before.” Not developing the Alfa and Maserati brands “would be financially suicidal for FCA.”
The platform used by the Chrysler Pacifica minivan will finally yield the long-promised crossover. It was in the last five-year plan but got pushed back. It will be in the next plan and could be in production in 18 months.
“We’re still playing with that thing,” Marchionne said. “It’s there. We have the car designed and we’re ready to go.” He said there have been various versions since the original plan to introduce both a minivan and crossover on the Pacifica platform and build them both at the Windsor Assembly Plant in Ontario. The crossover was delayed to make sure FCA gets it right, he said. “The platform is ready, and the plant can take it. We can probably get it up and running in 18 months.”
Yes, the Ferrari SUV is shaping up and will be ready at the end of 2019 or early 2020, Marchionne said. He is also head of Ferrari and will keep that job after he retires from FCA.
“I have seen the car when I was in Europe,” he said. “It’s not finished. It’s going to be Ferrari. It will drive like a Ferrari or I’ll be taken to the shed.” He added that he might be taken there anyway for the blasphemous act of a Ferrari SUV. At this point, the SUV is just mock-up bodies so nothing is drivable. “But it looks good.”
“So far the fastest SUV belongs to Alfa,” Marchionne said, referring to the Stelvio Quadrifoglio. “To be honest, I don’t think Ferrari fears Alfa. It will do its best to have the fastest SUV.”
Asked about an electric performance car, “Ferrari has looked at this forever, and if there is an electric supercar to be built, Ferrari will do it,” he said. “What Elon did is doable by all of us.” Back in September 2017, Ferrari’s chief technology officer Michael Leiters stressed that developing hybrid sports cars is the brand’s first priority.
The new Wrangler pickup will launch in late 2019, after Marchionne has retired. “The product is done,” he said, and the truck was ready to launch sooner, but production of regular Wranglers was a priority. The new 2018 Wrangler, which will be at dealers this quarter, is being made in its new home in the Toledo North plant that used to make the Cherokee. During the transition, old Wranglers continue to be made in the Supplier Park portion of the Toledo complex where the pickup will be assembled.
“We can’t lose any Wranglers. Unfortunately the financial damage associated with a shutdown of the plant in Toledo is tremendous, so we decided to keep on running the old Wrangler while this one was coming out.”
The last of the 2017 Wranglers will come off the line at the end of March, Marchionne said, followed by nine months of tooling and testing. “So we will see it sometime in the beginning of 2019. It’s going to be a huge thing.”
Any chance of pickups playing a major role in Europe? “No,” says the CEO. “It is an American thing.”
How about a midsize Ram to replace the defunct Dakota and go up against the Chevrolet Colorado and return of the Ford Ranger? “We’ve talked about this ad nauseam.” The automaker will look at it again, but the CEO does not think it is a segment they need to enter. Dakota has been out of production since 2010 and since then, “we have not found an economic way to get this done.”
More Jeeps for Mexico?
There are no current plans to make another Jeep at the Toluca, Mexico, plant that produces the Compass. Marchionne expects increased sales of the Compass in the future, especially in Europe where sales have been below expectations and addressing it is a priority. The Cherokee has also underperformed in Europe, but the new 2019 Cherokee unveiled at the Detroit auto show should help. It has the international platform it needed and a design that is no longer polarizing and aligns with the rest of the lineup. There is room to build more Cherokees at the Belvidere plant in Illinois.
Still seeking love?
FCA’s efforts to merge with others to create a larger and more viable automaker in 2015 continue to spark speculation. The latest round of rumors, which he debunked, is that FCA would be sold to a Chinese company.
“Last time I checked I had no food and no tables set up for any wedding,” Marchionne said. FCA is moving on, he insists, with full employment at its plants. “We cannot wait for this infamous wedding to happen. I don’t care, and I don’t think it will happen while I’m here.”
Successor to be named soon
It will be up to the FCA board to announce Marchionne’s successor. It will be a male from the existing management team.
One top contender is Chief Financial Officer Richard Palmer, the man behind the numbers—Marchionne has made it a top priority to become debt-free in 2018. He is confident the remaining debt will be eliminated by the end of the year and is hopeful he can make the claim at the June 1 release of the five-year plan. His successor will provide continued maintenance of FCA’s financial future. “That is not negotiable.”
Also in the running is Mike Manley who oversees the crucial and profitable Jeep and Ram brands. Other contenders include Alfredo Altavilla who has turned operations around in Europe and has overseen business development, as well as Reid Bigland who is in charge of the Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands. Marchionne said this week that there is also an internal candidate that has not been mentioned in press reports.