The fresh new Fiat gracing billboards -- and on occasion, roads and highways -- across Italy will not be a stranger to any vacationing American. Hawked under the not-so-brilliant tagline "All The Car You Want," the Fiat in question, dubbed the Freemont, is obviously a Dodge Journey.
But the tourist from, say, Des Moines shouldn't categorize the Freemont as just another example of lame badge engineering destined for failure. First, Fiat changed much more than just badges to create the Freemont. It's been thoroughly European-ized, in places that count. Second, as all those billboards indicate, Fiat is putting real marketing muscle behind the SUV, which is built in Toluca, Mexico. If it achieves the kind of sales Fiat executives believe are possible, the Freemont will be a small and welcome piece of good news for the North American auto industry.
Only a couple hundred customers a year bought the Journey when it was sold in Europe. As the Freemont, sold through Fiat's extensive European dealer network, annual sales of 30,000 are predicted. With a customer pool for roomy and flexible vehicles estimated at 600,000 strong, the objective appears achievable. Especially as the adaptations that distinguish Freemont from Journey suit it to the European market environment.
The front-drive versions of the Freemont currently in showrooms are powered by the most advanced versions of Fiat's Family B turbodiesel four. Freemont's 138-hp and 168-hp 2.0-liter engines share the same MultiJet II injection and variable geometry turbo tech, differing only in terms of combustion pressure settings, according to a Fiat engineer. Teamed with a six-speed manual, the diesels deliver good results in the standard European fuel efficiency test. Performance is adequate -- Fiat claims 0-62 mph takes 12.3 seconds in the less-powerful version, 11.0 seconds in the 168-hp.
For American-style acceleration, a four-wheel-drive version with the gasoline-burning 272-hp 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 will be added to the Freemont lineup late in the year. Another four-wheel-drive model powered by the 168-hp diesel will be added at the same time, like the Pentastar hitched to a six-speed automatic.
Refinement of the current front-drive diesels is excellent, and only partly attributable to the Freemont's new noise-blocking windshield and added sound-deadening material. Both diesels are relatively quiet, especially the 138-hp, which has nary a hint of old-school diesel combustion clatter.
Inside the Freemont, there's an all-new instrument panel that looks better than the Journey's and is made from classier materials. But the Journey's cleverly flexible seating system -- the Freemont is offered in five-seat and seven-seat configurations -- and multitude of storage spaces are retained. One of the Freemont's primary roles in the Fiat range is to replace the discontinued Ulysse minivan, and in this respect the American-engineered interior features work very well.
With a more direct steering ratio and completely revised spring and damper settings, the Freemont is a different kind of drive than Journey. The new steering makes the most difference, endowing the Freemont with quick -- for an SUV -- reactions. The new suspension settings clearly favor ride comfort over handling chops, but the Freemont was not unpleasant to hurry along narrow roads through the grapevine-covered hills of the wine country south of Turin where the vehicle's launch was staged.
And Italians at least seem happy to accept the Freemont as one of their own. As we stopped at a small town coffee bar for a refreshment pause during the drive program, espresso sippers put down their tiny cups to take a close look at the Fiat and ask questions. When they heard about its price and power, there was lots of nodding approval.
If the Freemont is an example of good badge engineering, other moves by Fiat-Chrysler to wring maximum sales from its existing global product portfolio aren't looking so smart.
Just weeks ahead of Freemont, Lancia launched the fourth-generation of its best-selling Ypsilon. Built on the Fiat Panda platform (which also provided the foundation for the Fiat 500), the tiny Lancia is, for the first time, a five-door hatchback. Intended to add luxury and style to the expected small car virtues of operating economy and parking ease, it's to be sold as a Chrysler in markets beyond Lancia's turf, these days strictly continental Europe only. The Chrysler Ypsilon will launch in the U.K. and Ireland in September or October, and other markets -- specifically Japan, Korea, and Australia -- are under consideration.
But the new Ypsilon is ill-equipped for success outside Europe. The designed-for-two-tone exterior is an acquired taste and the two-place rear seat (this is a narrow car) is cramped. Worse, even though the Lancia is equipped with Fiat's fine little two-cylinder gasoline and four-cylinder turbo diesel engines, a conventional auto or double-clutch transmission isn't available in the car. A robot-ized five-speed manual is offered with the 900cc two-cylinder turbo TwinAir engine, but its shifts are slow and often jerky. The lack of an up-to-date two-pedal transmission spells poor sales, especially in places like Japan and Australia.
And the Ypsilon isn't the only problem in Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne's master plan to melding Chrysler's big and Lancia's small lineups. Work is going ahead on the Lancia version of the new Chrysler 300C, shown at the Geneva Autosalon early this year and scheduled for October launch as the Thema. That's the good news...
Lancia also revealed versions of the Chrysler 200 sedan and convertible at Geneva, reviving the Flavia nameplate, but it now seems this part of the plan is unravelling. According to a senior Fiat source, Lancia dealers want the convertible, but don't believe the 200 has a hope of success in Europe. An official announcement on the Flavia project, likely reflecting the views of the dealer body, is expected at the Frankfurt auto show in September.
In contrast, Jeep -- which Sergio Marchionne rightly asserts is Fiat-Chrysler's only global brand -- is enjoying a growth spurt in Europe. Through the first half of 2011, sales increased more than 27 percent compared to the previous year, on the back of the introduction of new variants like the 3.0-liter V-6 turbo diesel Grand Cherokee.
For Fiat-Chrysler, working with cars planned or in production before the alliance was always going to be messy. Some things are going to work, like the Journey-based Freemont. Others won't, like turning the mediocre 200 into a new Lancia Flavia. Fiat-Chrysler can't afford to play hit and miss with legacy products for too long. And it won't. Beginning next year, properly co-developed cars will begin to appear.
The most important models will be built on the versatile C-wide platform, a wider and longer version of the Fiat-designed architecture first deployed beneath the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta. In Detroit, cut-and-shut Giuliettas are serving as development mules for the first members of the C-wide family. In 2012 alone, these comprise a replacement for the Dodge Caliber; an Alfa Romeo compact SUV that's a crucial part of the brand's planned return to the U.S.; a replacement for the Lancia (and Chrysler) Delta; and a new Fiat sedan for Asia. In the following year C-wide will underpin the new Alfa Giulia sedan and the closely related all-new Chrysler 200 and Lancia Flavia twins, plus two new Jeeps -- Compass/Patriot and Cherokee -- and a new Fiat crossover.
It's these cars, rather than today's fine Freemont and failed Flavia, that will prove the viability of the Fiat-Chrysler alliance. Or not.