Vile Gossip: Fiat makes a solid case as Chryslers Savior

In a brutally hot, sweltering July day in Orbassano, a suburb of Turin, Italy, a room full of Fiat Powertrain Technologies engineers in suits and ties carefully explained to a group of visiting auto journalists from the United States what the company had been up to since it blew our shores some twenty-five years ago, leaving behind a burning heap of an image that still smolders. It’s maddening to them, this Fix-It-Again-Tony joke that has popped back into the lexicon after lying dormant. On blogs, in newspaper articles, on the cable news shows, it’s all: Can Fix-It-Again-Tony really save the disaster that is Chrysler? It is especially irritating to the top PR guy, Richard Gadeselli, a Brit whose parents hail from Parma: “We’re not a couple of Italians arriving at Ellis Island saying, ‘Where’s Detroit?’ “

True. But Fiat got its own self in that pickle, reputation-wise, with us Americans. Years of rust-bucket, throwaway cars (no matter how iconic, how cute, how sexy they were – when they were running) left a bad aftertaste that has endured. That’s what bad news does. Ask Chrysler.

While baby boomers are especially pessimistic on the subject of Fiat as Chrysler’s savior, younger car enthusiasts are more likely to think of the; totally funky 500 when they think of Fiat. That, and a popular Fiat-branded line of clothing and accessories that was created by the flamboyant and stylish Agnelli heir, Lapo Elkann. Never mind his cocaine and heroin overdose in 2005, in which he was found in the apartment of a transsexual, comatose and possibly wearing a tutu. But not a Fiat-branded tutu.

Wacky zillionaire scions aside, Fiat has been as serious as a heart attack since the chain-smoking, sweater-wearing, Canadian Italian accountant Sergio Marchionne (mar-kee-OH-nee) came to town. That was 2004, just about the time General Motors had thrown in the towel on a tie-up with Fiat. GM had bought a 20 percent share in 2000 for $2.4 billion, giving Fiat the right to force GM to buy the rest five years later. GM then watched foundering Fiat accumulate $14 billion in net losses from 2000 through 2004. Having already written down its investment to a piddling $220 million, GM forked over another $2 billion to make Fiat go away. Oops.

With that, Marchionne had his turnaround funding, posting a profit a year later, after seventeen straight losing quarters. As he wrote to Chrysler employees in an introductory memo earlier this year: “Five years ago, I stepped into a very similar situation at Fiat. It was perceived by many as a failing, lethargic automaker that produced low-quality cars and was stymied by endless bureaucracies.” He promised that they would reap the same results.

That could very well happen, despite Marchionne’s recent “surprise” at discovering that Cerberus had shut down Chrysler engineering two years ago. Marchionne is a CEO dynamo in the mold of Renault-Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn – brilliant, demanding, empowering, and seemingly able to operate at high efficiency on little sleep. He favors young employees a few rungs down the ladder, giving them big jobs.

Back in Orbassano, home of the four-year-old Fiat Powertrain Technologies group – we find out what Fiat can bring to the table, and it is not just the funky little 500, the 2009 World Car Design of the Year.

It’s the even cooler 500C cabrio and the high-performance Abarth 500, along with a future 500 wagon.

It’s the Alfa Romeo MiTo, the Mini competitor that arrives here in 2011 with so-called Multiair controlling air and combustion, cylinder by cylinder, stroke by stroke. The next-generation Alfa 159 line. The replacement for the Milano sedan. The stunning Brera.

FPT is perfecting around-the-clock, single-project engineering using its network of eleven worldwide R&D facilities, potentially shaving 40 percent off development time.

Get the names right. There’s no Tony here to fix the mess. Look to FPT veterans Alfredo Altavilla, in his new role as a Chrysler board member, and Paolo Ferrero, the new SVP of Chrysler Powertrain, who worked at Abarth and on Lancia rally engines and offshore powerboats. Or we could look at it this way: Without Fiat, it would be curtains.

Written by: Jean Jennings