I just got a 700-mile glimpse of Chrysler's future, and there's plenty to look forward to. Good fuel economy, terrific handling, a quiet, comfortable ride and roomy interior, for a start.
I spent a week driving the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the car whose platform underpins a wide range of upcoming compact and midsize Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep cars and crossovers. The sleek hatchback was powered by a turbocharged version of the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine Chrysler builds in Dundee, 50 miles from Detroit.
I reviewed the Giulietta earlier this month, but the car's real significance lies in what it means to Chrysler's future.
In a word: Everything. Its platform and powertrain are vital to Fiat's plan to remake Chrysler into a profitable, stable maker of world-class small and midsize vehicles.
Nobody questions Chrysler's ability to build big vehicles. The Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ram pickup and Town & Country and Grand Caravan minivans are among the best of their kind. Chrysler's problem is that its midsize and compact vehicles generally ranged from average to awful. Fiat, on the other hand, is really good at small cars.
On paper, it's a match made in heaven. Chrysler's fate depends on how it works on the road and in showrooms.
The Giulietta is the first car to use Fiat's C-Evo platform. It delivered outstanding handling, stability and comfort during my test.
As C-Evo goes, so goes Chrysler, and thousands of jobs across America. Assembly plants from Belvidere, Ill., to Sterling Heights, Mich., and beyond are likely to produce 10 or more cars and crossovers based on a modified version of the platform insiders call CUSW.
Chrysler engineers and designers are working around the clock adapting C-Evo for U.S. customers. They've added two inches to the wheelbase for more rear legroom and an inch of width. They're crafting new bodies and interiors that look and feel like they belong in Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep dealerships.
The first of the new cars, a 40-mpg replacement for the Dodge Caliber, arrives early next year. It is to debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next January. Sales begin shortly thereafter.
A flood of new vehicles based on CUSW will reshape Chrysler's model line over the next three to four years. They will include replacements for the midsize Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger, compact Jeep Compass and Patriot and more.
You can't buy the Giulietta in America, incidentally. Maybe the next generation, sometime after 2014, but not the current model that went on sale in Europe last year. I got mine thanks to supplier Honeywell, which makes the turbocharger that allows its little engine to combine a brawny 180 pound-feet of torque with impressive fuel economy.
The Dundee-built version of the 1.4-liter engine and its derivatives will be mainstays of the Chrysler-Fiat lineup. The normally aspirated engine already powers the Fiat 500 coupe and convertible. The 170-horsepower turbocharged engine that propelled my Giulietta goes into production in Michigan later this year. It will put a charge into the performance version of the 500 that goes on sale early in 2012.
Look for various versions of the engine and the innovative Multiair variable-valve timing system it introduced to power many future Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep subcompact and compact vehicles.
BY MARK PHELAN
DETROIT FREE PRESS