January 21, 2009 at 1:00 am

Scott Burgess: Commentary

Alliance can fill brand needs big and small

An admirer in 2006 looks over a Punto, part of a line of small economical cars Fiat could bring to America in the partnership with Chrysler. Fiat cars start with 1.2-liter power plants and build up to 1.9 turbocharged four-cylinder engines. (Bloomberg News)

Who would have thought that Fiat could help improve Chrysler's reputation in America while Chrysler could help Fiat's overseas?

But it's true -- these two go together like Red and Barchetta. Fiat needs help developing trucks. Chrysler needs help everywhere, especially earning some small car street cred pronto -- or should I say Punto?

The Grande Punto is among the small economical cars that Fiat could bring to the United States as part of an Italian-American partnership. The subcompact three- or five-door Grande Punto certainly has more style than its competitors in the U.S. market.

Fiat specializes in small, fuel-efficient motors and could use a number of its tiny engines in the Grande Punto to stretch every drop of gasoline. These engines are the polar opposite of Chrysler's mega-powerful Hemi engines. Fiat cars start with 1.2-liter power plants and build up to 1.9 turbocharged four-cylinder engines.

The Italian carmaker also has a full complement of diesel engines and has developed more powerful six-cylinder engines for its other brands. It also is a European leader in compressed natural gas and ethanol engines.

The popular Fiat 500, known as the Cinquecento, is the odds on favorite to first come to America. It draws rave reviews and the buzz continues to grow since the showing of the 2011 model last year. Drawn by the same designer who penned the Mini Cooper for BMW, the Fiat 500 would go after Mini's loyal customers. Really, the car looks like a Ladybug, measuring a mere 140 inches long. It would most likely be powered with Fiat's 1.4-liter, 94-horsepower four-cylinder engine.

Alfa Romeo may return

For enthusiasts, the biggest news in this potential partnership is the possibility of Fiat's sport luxury brand -- Alfa Romeo -- returning to America. This brand has always held the aficionado's eye; now, it could collect more admiring stares.

From the entry-level MiTo, a beautiful subcompact, to the top-of-the line 8C Competizione, Alfa Romeo gives its cars silky, curvy exterior lines and plenty of power. There's a certain charm about Alfa that captivates enthusiasts. They're worth getting excited about. And don't forget: Fiat also owns Ferrari and Maserati, so capturing a little Pininfarina magic in a bottle is not impossible.

Bring over the entire Alfa Romeo lineup -- load up a boat right now. Add some European style to Chrysler's dealerships with the A159 Q4 sedan and sportwagon, as well as the MiTo.

Bring the Fiat Liena, a compact sedan, around the size of the Saturn Astra or Ford Focus -- and the biggest car in Fiat's lineup. Bring the Panda, a five-door subcompact that can fit in any city parking space. Help Chrysler develop small fuel-sipping engines that maximize mileage -- the Fiat 500 gets an estimated 46 miles per gallon.

Please don't rebadge

Sure, there are technical issues Fiat and Chrysler must overcome, such as making sure the vehicles conform to U.S. safety and emission regulations. But those are not impossible hurdles. Alfa Romeo, which wanted to return to the U.S. market, must have already been addressing the engineering.

The most worrisome proposition I've heard is that Chrysler might rebadge the Fiats as Chrysler or Dodge vehicles. Let me be the first to vehemently say: "No. Don't do it."

One analyst told me Chrysler could use the Fiat platform and redesign the little 500 to create a more American look.

Please, avoid that suggestion. Sell Fiats and Alfas, not Chryslfas or Fidges. Sometimes the best plan is the simplest.

The two companies fit together -- Fiat managing the little cars and Chrysler helping with the big ones. But now comes the tough part, executing the plan; after all, the diablo is in the details.

You can reach News auto critic Scott Burgess at (313) 223-3217 or sburgess@detnews.com">sburgess@detnews.com.

Fiat Chairman Luca Cordero Di Montezemolo, left, CEO Sergio Marchionne and ... (Giuseppe Cacace / Getty Images)
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