Payne Q&Auto: Jeep and Fiat separated at birth?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

On Planet Auto, Fiat and Jeep brands are poles apart. Their customers wouldn't mingle at the same cocktail party. Fiat owners would be inside at the wine and cheese bar while Jeep owners would hang outside quaffing beer and barbecue. Afterwards, the Fiat would take Woodward Avenue home. The Jeep the Rouge River bed.

So you'll be floored to know that the new subcompact Fiat 500X and Jeep Renegade utes were separated at birth. They share the same skeleton: the "small U.S. wide 4×4" platform.

Art Anderson, Auburn Hills engineering vehicle line executive, shows off a Fiat 500X.

If that seems incredible, consider this: The two products are the result of Detroiters and Italians working together. Across an ocean. Speaking the same language.

Art Anderson is the Auburn Hills engineering vehicle line executive for Renegade and 500X. His Italian counterpart is Fabio DiMuro in Turin. As project leads, they molded the SUVs from the first global platform birthed by the marriage of Fiat and Chrysler. Its bones can shoulder 16 powertrain combinations, be built on three continents and spread the Jeep and Fiat gospels to over 100 countries. Renegades and 500Xs sail to the U.S. from the same plant in Italy. These twins are the face of a new global auto industry.

Andersen, 54, is a laid-back, graying, goateed Chrysler veteran. He could be your Uncle Joe. We sat down at the Fiat 500X launch in Los Angeles this month to talk utes, Telepresence and remote start.

Engineer Art Anderson with the 2015 Jeep Renegade crossover. <137>Anderson is the Engineering Vehicle Line Executive for the Renegade and Fiat 500X which are made off the same platform in Melfi, Italy. (Photo courtesy of FCA)<137>

Q: The 500X and Renegade are FCA's first-born children?

A: The Auburn Hills and Turin offices have worked together on programs before like the Fiat 500L adaptation. But the Renegade and 500X platform is really the first time (FCA) did a global project together from the very start.

Q: What's a global platform?

A: The architecture itself has 16 different powertrain combinations in it. It is configured to meet global requirements, including European pedestrian protection with aluminum hoods and all that. On top of that are customer features for different countries. For example, it's against European laws to have remote start, while that is a price of entry in the NAFTA (North American) market. You can't get there unless two teams get together and put all the cards on the table and say this is what the platform has to do.

Q: Why you and Fabio?

A: Fabio was part of the industrialization over here of the Fiat 500, so he was an ex-pat in Auburn Hills for a while. He understood the culture. I worked on several international programs based in Europe and so I had the understanding of how to do business that way.

Q: The 500X is a particularly important product for Fiat, isn't it?

A: The fact that it is all-wheel drive ... allows them to penetrate a market they have not been able to fairly address. A lot of Fiat dealers are located in the sunshine states. This will enable them to come into the Northeast and Denver and the Snow Belt.

Q: Will the 500X sell better here or in Europe?

A: The volume right now is in Europe (because) there is a higher volume of dealers and an embedded customer base. The thing we've noticed is that they sell Renegades and 500X in the same showroom, yet there is zero cross-shopping between the two cars. The 500X mission is on-road, all-weather capability. The Renegade is on-road comfort and off-road capability.

Q: How is 500X different here and abroad?

A: In Europe, the volume seller is going to be a 140-horsepower diesel manual, and in NAFTA the volume seller is going to be a 180-horsepower, gas-powered automatic. (The chassis is) set up with a stiff suspension by American standards, yet there's capability in the platform to fit it with all-season tire and open damping to be able to handle the NAFTA potholes and roads.

Q: Does a global platform mean you are always traveling?

A: We started out 41/2 years ago with a lot of face-to-face travel going both ways. As we've come to know each other really well there are a lot of teleconferences — we have Telepresence, which is a video conference. The partners in the team are the most valuable things. If I call Fabio or Fabio calls me and we say we have a problem, we trust each other implicitly.

Q: Fix-It-Again-Tony and Jeep don't have great quality reputations. Was that a development priority?

A: It's at the top of the list of things we are keeping a close eye on. The amount of testing miles is unbelievable.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.