Fiat Chrysler banks on Jeep

The Jeep Renegade sport utility vehicle is part of Fiat Chrysler's expansion plans.
The Jeep Renegade sport utility vehicle is part of Fiat Chrysler's expansion plans.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Rugged brand is becoming the Italian-American carmaker's weapon to vie with global players

While carmakers around the world covet Jeep for its strong growth and fat profits, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV sees potential for much more, banking on the rugged brand to vie with global giants such as Toyota, Volkswagen and Ford. 

The Italian-American carmaker is forecasting Jeep's annual sales will jump about 30 per cent next year to two million vehicles and predicts the brand could eventually deliver seven million units a year as appetite for SUVs surges worldwide, chief executive Sergio Marchionne has told analysts.

That would continue impressive growth for a United States-focused off-road brand that had little more than 300,000 deliveries in 2009 when Fiat took control of Jeep as part of its acquisition of Chrysler.

Even if Mr Marchionne has plenty of reasons to see more growth ahead for sport utility vehicles, that level of expansion would be unprecedented.

Jeep would need at least one model to sell more than one million a year.

Only the Toyota Corolla, an affordable bread-and-butter compact that is unlike anything Jeep offers, averaged that much global volume since the start of the decade, according to IHS Markit.

While Mr Marchionne, 65, helped stoke speculation about Jeep's future by saying Fiat Chrysler could spin off more divisions like it did with its Ferrari supercar unit, the brand is all but untouchable, despite drawing interest from China's Great Wall Motor Co.

Jeep has emerged as the focal point of the automaker's mass-market car plans, without which the company could scarcely attract a partner necessary to weather the disruption looming over the car industry.

"I don't see how FCA could sell it," Ms Maryann Keller, a long-time industry analyst and consultant, said of Jeep. "Whatever they got for it would hardly replace what they lost."

Fiat Chrysler executives are considering options, including a plan to spin off the upscale Maserati and Alfa Romeo divisions and its car-components operations, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The company intends to keep Jeep to anchor the mass-market car business that also includes the Dodge and Ram brands, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.

A Fiat Chrysler spokesman declined to comment.

Jeep, which is valued by Morgan Stanley at €23 billion (S$37 billion), is already being transformed into a global player.

SUV production started in India this year, following new plants in China, Brazil and Italy.

Mr Marchionne sees SUVs and crossovers as potentially becoming a third of the global industry, or as much as 35 million vehicles a year.

With Jeep's cachet and pedigree, it could capture a fifth of that market, he said on an earnings call on July 27.

The brand's line-up will expand with the addition of the Wagoneer, Grand Wagoneer and a pick-up in the coming years, joining the Renegade, Compass, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee in showrooms.

To reach Mr Marchionne's sales projection, those models would have to combine to sell about 50 per cent more vehicles than what all of Fiat Chrysler delivered last year.

"It seems pretty pie-in-the-sky at this point," Mr Richard Hilgert, a car analyst at Morningstar, said of Mr Marchionne's long-term projection.

Still, he noted most observers were dubious years ago that Jeep could expand to two million in annual sales by next year, a projection that now looks reachable.

Mr Marchionne spoke plainly about the rationale against splitting Jeep from the rest of Fiat Chrysler on the earnings call, warning that the remainder of the company might not be healthy enough to survive. 

"We do need to worry about the stump that's left behind," he said. "If we start picking away all the things that appear to be interesting to people, then I think we're going to end up with a sub-optimal business that cannot run."

Without a robust and global Jeep, Fiat Chrysler has little to offer a potential partner, which Mr Marchionne has sought to address strategic weaknesses.

The carmaker has the least fuelefficient fleet in the US and it has poured less investment into technology like autonomous driving than its bigger rivals.

The company is in very early discussions with Volkswagen AG about possible joint production of light utility vehicles, said two people familiar with the matter.

Spinning off Maserati, Alfa Romeo and parts divisions including Magneti Marelli, Teksid and Comau probably would help Fiat Chrysler's goal to eliminate €4.2 billion in debt by the end of next year.

The luxury-car operations could be worth as much as €7 billion, while the components businesses may fetch up to €5 billion, analysts estimate.

Fiat Chrysler's shares in both the US and Italy closed at record highs on Thursday. The deal speculation surrounding Fiat Chrysler has more investors realising that the company is "exceedingly undervalued", Mr Hilgert said.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'Fiat Chrysler banks on Jeep'. Print Edition | Subscribe