Two years ago at the Chrysler Fleet Preview in Detroit Sergio Marchionne laid out the plan for Chrysler’s future. Not yet a year into his job as Chrysler’s CEO (and only six years on the Fiat job as well) and less than a year since Chrysler emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, Marchionne said the company had just turned the corner into black.

This week he was back on the Chrysler Fleet Preview stage, and this time in Savannah, Ga. In his trademark professorial delivery, with no teleprompters and a few pages of rumpled notes as reference, Marchionne told Chrysler’s largest fleet buyers that the company reached or exceeded all its goals set forth in 2009. While Marchionne speaks softly, I thought, this guy carries a big stick.

There were references from Marchionne and the heads of Chrysler fleet on how Chrysler has paid back its government loans five years early, gained fleet market share, hired 3,000 new employees in 2011 and increased revenue by 31% in the last year. There are many factors contributing to the turnaround, but as Marchionne said, it’s about the product. “We have appeared to learn that product is at the heart of what we do,” he said.

So let’s talk product. The biggest news is the 2013 Dodge Dart, which Marchionne called “the acid test for our collective future.” (He’s not one to scrimp on the gravitas.) Indeed, the Dart is the first collaboration of Chrysler and Fiat resources and the first true compact car for the automaker since Dodge Neon exited in 2005.

For product photos taken at the event, click here.

Impressions, up close and personal: From the Charger-like taillight treatment to the long hood and aerodynamic front fascia, the Dart seems ready to carve a place on the sporty side of the compact segment. Interior appointments are refined — above compact class — and there are plenty of tech goodies if you want them. The optional 8.4-inch touchscreen is class exclusive; they call them Media Centers now.

I drove the 1.4L MultiAir turbo and it didn’t disappoint on the road course or the track. Suspension felt firm and planted; it cornered without squeal after giving it a college try (which proves I’m no racecar driver). With the turbo’s added torque, the Dart is quick, not fast, but plenty confident at higher speeds. The nice thing about the turbo engine is that it’ll get you up to 41 mpg on the highway.

Following the trend in the compact segment, Dart has flavors for everyone in terms of engine choices, transmissions, colors and options packages, which should appeal to a variety of fleet needs.

Another fleet winner is that the Dart is “a compact that thinks it’s a midsize,” according to Pete Grady, VP, network development and fleet. The total interior passenger volume (97.2 cu. ft.) is best in class, as is hip, shoulder and rear leg room. The glove box fits an iPad, and it even contains a “paper clip holder,” which I’m sure will be repurposed for things more important than paper clips. Overall, the center console is spacious for a compact, and the trunk offers a roomy 13.1 cubic feet. Even better is that a trunk pass-through allows long items to be stowed while still accommodating two rear passengers.

You can get more product and pricing info on the Dodge Dart here.

We couldn’t drive the 2013 Ram 1500, unfortunately. But with best-in-class fuel economy, horsepower, towing and payload, Ram has just set the bar higher for half-ton pickups — at least until the competitors’ next generation rolls off the assembly line.

At the walk-around, besides the new front-end styling, you really notice the new Ram 1500’s storage options, which include two insulated bins in the second row floor. Along the truck bed, the newest RamBox is lockable via keyfob and is lit and drainable, for those that want their beer cold and their fish as fresh as possible.

You could call the 2013 Ram 1500 “a major refresh,” with a lot of the technology designed to boost fuel economy while maintaining capabilities. The new 1500 offers a class-exclusive air suspension system, which lowers for step in and when at cruising speeds, lifts for ground clearance off-road and can level the bed load. The new 1500 will also get stop-start technology, which adds 1 mpg in the city, according to Ram engineers. Other fuel-saving technologies include electric steering (replacing hydraulic steering), a front grille that shutters for aerodynamics, an 8-speed transmission and at least 94 lbs. in weight savings over the previous model.

The Ram’s base powerplant, the ubiquitous Pentastar 3.6L V6, improves fuel efficiency over the older engine and can run on E-85 ethanol. The new V8 Hemi gets five more horses than before and still obtains 20% better fuel economy. In the words of Pete Grady, “The internal combustion engine is still where we can make a difference.” So true!

For detailed info on the 2013 Ram 1500, visit here.

The Ram 2500 bi-fuel CNG is ready for delivery next month — beating the CNG truck competitors out of the gate — and it’s a factory option. Chrysler has benefited from the CNG know-how of Fiat, which owns 75% of Europe’s CNG market. 

Fiat plans to bring the Ducato full-size van stateside next year and will produce ir in North America. We were told to expect a fuel economy improvement of 4-5 mpg over similarly sized vans currently available.

On the alternative power front, Chrysler has plug-in hybrid-electric (PHEV) Ram 1500s and Chrysler Town & Country minivans in demonstration fleets now. An all-electric Fiat 500 will be on the market later this year.

Back to Marchionne: During a question-and-answer session, he shared some thoughts on the European debt crisis. He admitted that in terms of auto manufacturing, Europe has not yet addressed its over-production capacity as we have in the U.S.

Marchionne, whose financial pedigree includes sitting on the board of directors for global banking group UBS, noted that Europe concocted the European Union in an imperfect way and said he predicted at its outset that it wouldn’t work if the fiscal discipline wasn’t there. With the Greek vote looming (on his 60th birthday, no less) Europe is “facing many more months of pain,” he said.

When it comes to our economy, he took an upbeat view. “If the U.S. economy went straight up, I’d run for the hills,” he said. “These things take a bit at a time.”

In terms of Europe’s implications for North America, “There is no contagion on the financial side. Europe runs on a self-funded basis,” he said, adding that “If there are no JP Morgans (massive trading losses) up anyone’s sleeve, we’ll be okay.”

Hopefully Marchionne will be back at the fleet preview in two years and we can hold him to his words. At the end of his remarks, Marchionne praised fleet as “an integral part of our comeback story.”

Other tidbits:
• During the event, Chrysler announced that it has appointed Jim Sassorossi as the new director of fleet, commercial and rental sales for the company. Sassorossi replaces Pat Dougherty, who is moving to a new role at Mopar.

• Chrysler’s order-to-delivery times have improved from an average of 66 days in the 2011 model year to 56 days for the 2012 model year. 

• Chrysler has upped the residual value performance of its portfolio by six points. Looking at Chrysler’s 2009 models, ALG had markedly undervalued them across the board compared to their actual resale performance.

• The automaker expects a 25% fuel economy improvement across its portfolio by 2014.

• The companies that make up the Fiat and Chrysler Groups control more than $140 billion in annual revenue. How does Marchionne sleep at night?

• The Fiat 500 Abarth is a screamer. Compared to the base model Fiat 500, it’s like driving two different cars.

• Kudos to Chrysler for its ride-and-drive experience, which includes a street course, an off-road course and a true race track. It really provides fleets an opportunity to give the products a real workout and pound the pulse a bit. And that’s what it’s all about.

• More kudos to Chrysler for choosing great locations for fleet previews (last year, Austin, Texas; this year, Savannah, Ga.) and actually bringing us out into these unique places. The port city of Savannah — characterized by its Spanish moss and a bit of colonial decay — is full of Southern charm and quirky characters. Just read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and you’ll know what I mean.

Originally posted on Business Fleet

About the author
Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Associate Publisher

As associate publisher of Automotive Fleet, Auto Rental News, and Fleet Forward, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.

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