Detroit 2013: Nine-Speed for Dodge Dart

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DETROIT -- The new Dodge Dart desperately needs Chrysler's nine-speed automatic transmission, CEO Sergio Marchionne conceeds. The nine-speed should be ready in time for the Jeep Liberty's premier at the New York International Auto Show this spring, Marchionne, who also is CEO of Fiat Auto, said in a wide-ranging roundtable interview with automotive and business reporters at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Monday.

"If you want an American solution, the dual-dry clutch is not the answer," Marchionne said of the Dart's high fuel-mileage powertrain option.

Asked when Chrysler will have a replacement ready for the Dodge Challenger, Marchionne responded, "replacement or step-up?" OK, step up. "Soon." That replacement is widely believed to be the SRT Barracuda, on a shorter-than-Challenger rear-wheel-drive platform that would spawn at least one Alfa Romeo, a BMW 3 Series-sized sport sedan.

Chrysler contributed 2.4 million of the 4.1 million cars and trucks the Fiat-Chrysler combine sold in 2012, Marchionne noted. From now on, new Lancia models will be based on Chryslers. Alfa Romeo is different. Marchionne will not bring back Alfa before it's ready; "I cannot come up with a short product. It needs to (have) a Wop engine," the Italian-Canadian said, drawing incredulous laughter.

Getting the right product into the Alfa lineup is crucial before its long-awaited return to the U.S. market. Marchionne says he's concentrating on Maserati this year, with the Mark VI Quattroporte making its debut at this show, followed by another car and Maserati's SUV later this year. Asked about Volkswagen Group's frequent trial balloons to purchase Alfa from Fiat Auto, as a replacement for its floundering Seat brand, Marchionne said, "I'm going to come up with a German version of 'no.' I think it's called 'nein.'"

It's those frequent overtures from VW's Martin Winterkorn that have raised the value of the Alfa brand in Fiat's and Marchionne's eyes.

Marchionne admitted Chrysler hasn't decided whether the Chrysler or Dodge brand will get the next version of its traditional, sliding-door minivan.

"The platform we've chosen for the replacement can be shrunken and narrowed," he said, making international distribution feasible. He hints that while one brand gets the traditional sliding-door model, the other would get a crossover variant that could be similar to the Chevy Traverse, Buick Enclave and Ford Explorer. The platform can accommodate a short-wheelbase van, as well as a car, he said. Chrysler's refresh for the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee has readjusted the company's new product cadence, including new b- and c-segment Chrysler brand products, he said. It's not a question of whether those b- and c-segment products are still on, but when they'll be ready, he added.

Marchionne said the new Jeep product that Fiat will build in Italy is a model not meant for the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) market. "The car doesn't exist today. The architecture does not exist within the NAFTA world.

"It's designed to expand the reach of Jeep in non-NAFTA markets."

That Jeep also has the advantage of eating up some of Fiat's capacity in Europe. While Chrysler's capacity in NAFTA is now at the proper level, Marchionne said, over-capacity remains the Western European auto market's key problem. With overtime and re-opened plants in NAFTA, Chrysler has enough capacity here for 2.8 million cars per year, or a 15.5-million unit industry year, covering the upper-end of analysts' projections for the auto market in 2013.

"People do weird things when they're under pricing pressure," he said of the European market, which has the kind of over-capacity that NAFTA had before the 2009 GM and Chrysler bankruptcies and production realignment at Ford. "There is a first-mover disadvantage to being the first guy to take on capacity" in Europe, he said. Trying to sell more cars in the current market affects an automaker's fixed costs. Growth prospects in Europe are "not the rosiest," considering European Union austerity plans, he said.

Part of Marchionne's solution will be to sell Alfas once again in the NAFTA region. But with the European overcapacity problems, a number of significant Chrysler launches in the relatively healthy U.S. market and Marchionne's determination to get the Alfa re-introduction done right, it's easy to see why he won't be pinned down to a specific about a relaunch date.

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