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Maserati to follow Alfa’s SUV lead

Italian clod hopper: Maserati's 2003 Kubang concept could provide and idea of what's in store from the famed Italian marque's first production SUV.

First two Alfa Romeo SUVs look set to be followed by a Maserati off-roader too

Maserati logo30 Nov 2010

By MARTON PETTENDY

ALFA Romeo’s first SUV will be produced alongside an all-new compact Jeep crossover in Italy within two years, and looks likely to be joined soon after by a full-size off-roader not only from the famed Italian sportscar brand but its more exclusive Fiat stablemate, Maserati.

Further evidence of Fiat and Chrysler’s technology sharing strategy – formally outlined in the alliance’s 2010-2014 industrial prospectus for shareholders in April – emerged on Friday (November 26), when the CEO of both companies, Sergio Marchionne, presented Italian trade unions with a plan to build mid-size cars and SUVs for both Alfa and Jeep at Fiat’s historic Mirafiori plant near Turin in 2012.

They include replacements for Alfa’s BMW 3 Series-rivalling 159 sedan and wagon, to be called the Giulia, a successor for Jeep’s entry-level Compass and Patriot crossovers, and a small Alfa SUV to rival BMW’s X3 and Audi’s Q5.

A larger Alfa off-roader – based on the chassis of the redesigned Jeep Cherokee due on sale in Australia in January – was also revealed as part of Fiat’s five-year business plan and will be launched following the Giulia and yet-to-be-named SUV in late 2012, and the new Spider in 2013 – the year of Alfa’s US reintroduction.

Earlier last week, however, Mr Marchionne revealed the new Grand Cherokee’s GC platform, which was originally designed by DaimlerChrysler for the Mercedes-Benz R, M and GL-class, could also underpin a full-size SUV from Maserati.

32 center imageFrom top: Alfa Romeo's Kamal concept, the Alfa Giulietta and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Although Alfa and Maserati have both revealed concept SUVs in the past – with the respective Kamal and Kubang both debuting in 2003 – a full-sized luxury 4x4 to rival the likes of BMW’s X5 would break completely new ground for both brands.

“This is just a great architecture,” Mr Marchionne told The Wall Street Journal of the new Grand Cherokee: “Why wouldn’t I put a Maserati on it?“One of the things we are now looking at in some detail is utilising this architecture and extending its application for future products both within Chrysler and outside Chrysler,” he said, adding that Fiat is also investigating the use of existing Maserati engines in the new performance-orientated SUV, potentially including the same Ferrari-produced V8 engines as the GranTurismo, GranCabrio and Quattroporte.

Unlike other Alfas and Maseratis, however, the large Italian SUVs are likely to be built in North America – as are the X5 and M-class – alongside the Grand Cherokee and new Dodge Durango at Chrysler’s Jefferson North plant in Detroit.

Both the compact and large Alfa SUVs (and the North American market, in which Alfa Romeos will be sold through Chrysler dealerships from separate showrooms) are seen as crucial to the historic Italian brand’s target of 500,000 sales a year by 2014 – up from a mere 110,000 last year.

Representing an investment of more than €1 billion ($A1.37b) - split between Fiat and Chrysler in proportion to the number of vehicles produced for each brand – the Mirafiori factory “relaunch” involves the establishment of a joint-venture between Fiat and Chrysler to build up to 280,000 Alfa and Jeep vehicles annually.

According to Automotive News, the Mirofiori survival plan will see Fiat cover about 60 per cent of the cost by injecting around €600 million ($A820m) for about 150,000 Alfa models a year, while Chrysler will stump up roughly €400 million to get an annual supply of about 100,000 examples of the new small Jeep.

All three models will be produced at Mirafiori on the new ‘Compact Wide’ vehicle platform developed by Chrysler for its next-generation Dodge Caliber, which enters US production in the fourth quarter of next year before going on sale globally from early 2012, as well as the Jeep Compass/Patriot replacement due for production in Italy in the second half of 2012.

The Compact Wide architecture is 40mm wider than Fiat’s ‘Compact’ C-segment (small) vehicle architecture, which debuted beneath the all-new Alfa Giulietta hatchback that goes on sale in Australia in January and was benchmarked against BMW and Audi models to deliver best-in-class performance and safety.

Fiat and Chrysler have been developing the wider platform for use under a variety of small global Alfa, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models since mid-2009, after Italy’s largest industrial group acquired a 20 per cent stake in the troubled number-three US car-maker.

Europe’s number six car-maker said it would increase its interest in the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based company to 25 per cent by the first quarter of 2011 and to 35 per cent by the end of next year. Together, Fiat/Chrysler expects to sell more than one million vehicles based on the new compact platform/s, which will underpin all future C and D-segment cars and SUVs from Fiat and Chrysler.

Describing the joint-venture project as the first tangible example of the benefits brought by the Chrysler alliance to Fiat’s Italian operations, Mr Marchionne said more than half of Mirafiori’s production will be for international markets, including North America.

The Fiat CEO expressed his intention to initiate the project immediately in order to reconfigure the plant in time for the planned launches of the new models from Alfa and Jeep – the most international brands within both groups - in the third or fourth quarter of 2012.

But in a statement issued on Friday, Fiat said union concessions on new labour rules and a “leap of quality” will be needed for the Mirafiori plant, which like all of Fiat’s Italian plants is losing money, to become a world-class facility that can compete with other European car factories.

“In addition to the group's commitment, the support of trade unions and employees is essential to realisation of this project and to guarantee the plant the necessary level of competitiveness in terms of capacity utilization, productivity and operational flexibility,” said the car-maker.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for Italian industry to produce cars of quality and prestige. Mirafiori has all the elements necessary to achieve a leap of quality and become a world class plant, producing cars for Europe, North America and other markets around the world.”

While the Mirafiori plant, which opened in 1939 and currently employs about 5400 workers, made 178,500 cars in 2009, production is expected to decline to 120,000 this year from 217,400 cars in 2006. Mirafiori produces the Fiat Idea, Multipla, and Punto Classic, the Lancia Musa and the Alfa MiTo.

Production of the 12-year-old Multipla people-mover and 11-year-old Punto ends next month, while replacements for the Idea and Musa compact MPVs will shift to Serbia from 2012. The three-door MiTo will be joined by a five-door version in Fiat’s 2014 plan, but its successor’s future at Mirafiori is unclear once the factory is retooled to produce Compact Wide vehicles.

“We are in a difficult situation in Italy,” Mr Marchionne told reporters after the meeting with unions. “Our industrial network is not efficient and is not in a position, as things stand, to cope with competition.

“The only thing we ask for Mirafiori is to reach a higher level of flexibility and production.”

Fiat’s Mirafiori announcement is the second part of its ‘Fabbrica Italia’ plan to improve the efficiency of its Italian factories, following a landmark deal at its Pomigliano plant near Naples in June, which included an increase in the number of shifts and limits to strikes and benefits as part of a €700 million investment.

Bloomberg said unions welcomed the start of open negotiations on one of Fiat’s two largest facilities and expected a deal by Christmas, but one warned against a repeat of the Pomigliano arrangement, following which Fiat plans to move production of its new Panda city-car from Poland to Italy.

Apart from considering its first SUV, Maserati next year will launch a redesigned Quattroporte sedan and is also developing a smaller, entry-level four-seater sedan or coupe.

In separate Fiat news, the Italian giant this week also signed an agreement with Opel in which Fiat will supply Opel, Vauxhall and potentially Holden with a replacement for its current Combo commercial van from December 2011.

The new Combo will be based on the same platform as Fiat’s next-generation Doblo van and built at the current Doblo’s production site, the Tofas plant in Bursa, Turkey.

In September, Fiat shareholders voted to split the car-making division of the manufacturer (Fiat SpA) from its commercial vehicles division, which is now known as Fiat Industrial SpA.

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