Chrysler just won't die.

The Detroit automaker's debut Monday on the New York Stock Exchange, this time as part of the Italian-controlled Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, marks the emphatic revival of a company once so irretrievably broken that CEO Sergio Marchionne got its assets for free.

The gamble, engineered by the Obama auto task force, is paying off. It gives Fiat the North American partner it lacked, Chrysler the reach it needed and the global auto industry a formidable player well stocked with enviable, if underdeveloped, brands.

Here is an owner that wants what Chrysler offers. Under Italian control, Chrysler is beginning to realize the fuller potential of the Jeep and Ram brands, to name two; delivering more competitive passenger cars; and embracing the company's Detroit roots instead of running from them.

But for how long? With an end-date to the Marchionne era already determined, and Chrysler's serial ownership a matter of historical fact, it's not unreasonable to question whether the industrial logic behind the combination is likely to survive once the CEO and his force of personality step down by the end of 2018.

Because one of the less desirable truths of this Italian-American union is that it combines one of Europe's smaller, more chronically challenged players with Detroit's No. 3 automaker, its 40-year history of recurring crises and owners who grow disillusioned with their charge.

Whether Marchionne and his team of comparative unknowns can break the cycle amid global uncertainty and intense competition will be answered in time and deed — not the near-term performance of FCAU shares on the NYSE.

"It's been a real roller coaster," says Jim Blanchard, the former Michigan governor who helped engineer Chrysler's federal loan guarantees as a member of Congress in 1980 and recently completed a three-year term on the automaker's board of directors.

"I've been living this company up and down for 30 years. I think we were all confident we would just make it. You could tell by watching Marchionne operate that he knew what he was doing. He comes at these issues from a different perspective."

Namely, that of an opportunist. Be it his successful effort to extract $2 billion from General Motors Corp. to end its alliance with Fiat SpA or his bid to acquire Chrysler's assets from the feds for what amounted to no money down, Marchionne's reputation rests on spotting value where others don't.


And, second, it depends on the backing of Fiat's founding Agnelli clan, whose Exor SpA investment company controls nearly half the voting power of FCA's shares. That's an unqualified bet on Marchionne's vision for the newly combined company and Chrysler's critical role in it.

Like the Ford family's backing of CEO Alan Mulally to lead a revitalization of Ford Motor Co., Agnelli scion John Elkann is putting his family's prodigious means and reputation behind Marchionne's vision and ability to achieve it. Who says family control of global automakers is a quaint relic of the past?

The combined FCA is pursuing a $60 billion growth plan over the next five years, an audacious undertaking that assumes a 60 percent boost in sales, expansion of the Jeep portfolio, a broadened Maserati line up and the oft-delayed reintroduction of Alfa Romeo to the rich U.S. market.

"The products are better than they've ever been — competitive in the marketplace, which they always haven't been," says Andy Kaplan, vice president of Dominion of Bedford, a Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealer in western Virginia. "They definitely are continuing to exceed expectations."

The good news for Chrysler and homers in southeast Michigan is that its brands, product development and North American plants figure prominently in the future. That's a refreshing change from the imperious German ownership of Daimler AG or the smartest guys in the room from Cerberus Capital Management LP.

The problem is the complexity accompanying Marchionne's audacity. The new company is incorporated in the Netherlands, legally headquartered in the United Kingdom and run from operational headquarters in Turin and Auburn Hills.

Its core passenger car brands — Dodge and Chrysler here, Fiat and Lancia in Europe — are not dominant players in their segments. Jeep and Ram are burnishing solid reputations, but lofty plans to grow Maserati and Alfa in the face of stiff German (even Japanese) luxury competition are no sure thing.

Marchionne's ambition to vault the combined company into the industry's elite may prove a tough play, but Detroit's comeback kid still lives.


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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at detroitnews.com\staff\27151.

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