Time is not on the side of Chrysler Group LLC.
I say this not because CEO Sergio Marchionne doesn't have a track record of turning around businesses, because he does. Nor because the men and women of Chrysler can't deliver the upgraded cars and trucks promised at Wednesday's marathon confab. They can.
Time is not on Chrysler's side because the clock clearly favors crosstown rivals Ford Motor Co. and, yes, General Motors Co. -- both of which have killer products in showrooms, right now, that deliver on the promise of a new Detroit. Add the foreigners, be it a (briefly) stumbling Toyota Motor Corp. or a resurgent Volkswagen AG, and the task grows exponentially.
That's not negativity. It's a triumph of experience over hope. It's sad acknowledgement of just how deeply Chrysler's past two owners gutted the automaker. It's an unvarnished assessment that Chrysler's chance of bona fide resurgence depends as much on the relative strength of its competition as it does the realism of its business plan.
Time? Anyone who takes eight hours -- plus risotto at lunch -- to make the case for Chrysler's future shows, by definition, a flawed understanding of the values of economy and time. That would be their own and everyone else's.
Above it all, above the plans for Chrysler and Dodge, the revamps of Jeep, the outlook for the Ram brand and the over-arching corporate strategy, float über-questions: Can they get there from here? And if they do, will enough people who buy cars and trucks, people who have lots of choices, go there with them?
If you live in this town, hold a mortgage, send your kids to public schools and shop locally, you want to believe they will. But the competition is as good as it's ever been, and it's getting better with each new launch, as a quick gander at the latest reliability surveys or Consumer Reports' recommended list would attest.
From Ford's new EcoBoost engines and the interiors of its newest Blue Oval rides to GM's solid execution on its Cadillac CTS line, through Buick and to its Chevy Equinox crossover with a four-banger under the hood, Chrysler's chief rivals are priming showrooms with a flood of new products that shows no sign of abating.
That's good for them but it's a huge challenge for Chrysler and the major domos from Fiat SpA who call the shots in Auburn Hills. They're joining a race already in progress, which any Italian weaned on the nuances of Formula 1 could tell you is not a good place to be.
Look at the sales figures for last month. For Chrysler? Down 30 percent again. Ford? Up 3.3 percent. Post-bankruptcy GM? Up 4.7 percent. Toyota and Honda? Essentially flat. Nissan? Up 5.6 percent. VW? Up 4.2 percent. And Hyundai? Up a whopping 48.9 percent.
Tells you nothing -- and everything. By October, new models are making their way onto showroom floors, except when they aren't. The most distressing part of Chrysler's pitch for the near-term is that it depends on face-lifting also-ran products as a bridge to new-new things powered by Fiat engines (in a Chrysler mid-size sedan?) and shaped by the new mojo in Auburn Hills.
Only one problem: Making the old new again isn't a proven winner for Detroit metal. Look at the hottest products from Ford right now -- they're new. Fusion? New model name slapped on a world-class vehicle architecture. Edge crossover? Not a reskinned Explorer. Taurus? A historic name first revived on a place-holder model before finding a new home on an impressive package.
Same at GM. The Buick Enclave? A new set of components shared with Chevy and the defunct Saturn. Cadillac CTS? An impressive second-generation refinement of an all-new product. The Chevy Malibu? A quantum improvement on the 'Bu it replaced, in design, refinement and packaging.
All of it takes time, lots of dough and a product development process unmolested by the distractions of transatlantic meddling. They've seen that movie in Auburn Hills before, in German, and it didn't turn out well. Could the Italian version be different?
It could, but the circumstances are more difficult; more direct competitors are stronger; the new boss isn't the owner, but he's in charge; and you can't help wonder if an unspoken logic behind the aggressive business assumptions is less Chrysler's success and more landing Fiat the American footprint it seeks.
Marchionne and the boys (not one woman pitched for Chrysler during the Auburn Hills marathon) are fresh. They're optimistic. They're energetic. They actually know the difference between a transmission and a private-equity transaction. And homers whose interests wouldn't be served by Chrysler disappearing rightly root for their success.
But they're racing a clock that long ago started to tick.
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