- Fiat 500(2031)
Sergio Marchionne is the CEO of Fiat, which as you may have heard, has finally worked up a deal to finish acquiring the Chrysler Group after months of bargaining with the United Auto Workers and its VEBA healthcare trust, which owned just over 40 percent of the American brand. Where was Marchionne when the deal was finally hammered out? Well, not tucked away in a frigid Detroit board room until the wee hours of the morning.
Nope, one of the largest deals in automotive history was reportedly hammered out on the beach - at the home of a banker, in the Florida resort town of Vero Beach. Marchionne traveled to the home of Alain Lebec, a senior managing director at Brock Capital LLC, one of the advisory companies for the VEBA fund, where both sides met to make final arrangements in the $4.35-billion exchange. The location of the final deal, though, is nearly as remarkable as the pace with which it came about.
According to anonymous sources pinned down by Automotive News Europe, before the meeting, the two sides were meeting in Detroit as recently as December 19, which is where Fiat made one of its final revised offers. Naturally, the VEBA made a counter offer, which led Marchionne to initiate the Vero Beach meeting.
Now that Fiat has finalized a deal to purchase the outstanding shares of Chrysler owned by the United Auto Workers' VEBA retiree heathcare fund without having to file for an IPO, you can count the Italian automaker's stockholders among the happy. The Detroit News reports that Fiat stock closed Thursday with a 12-percent gain for the day on the Borsa Italiana, having been up by as much as 15.8 percent during the day's trading, at prices not seen since mid-2011. One trader reasoned the run was because Fiat "paid less than the market had expected and there will be no capital increase to fund this."
But there are some who worry, including bank analysts and unions. The final price of the stake will be $4.35 billion - $1.9 billion in cash from Chrysler, $1.75 billion from Fiat and extraordinary dividends in the amount of $700 million paid over three years. Adding that sum to its ledger will raise Fiat's debt level to roughly 10 billion euros ($13.8 billion), which Citibank says will make it the most indebted OEM in Europe.
Italian unions are also concerned about what the deal means for the future. Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has had an at-times contentious relationship with both unions and the Italian government over the future of Italian manufacturing, a fact that makes headlines because Fiat is Italy's largest private employer. At least two left-leaning unions have publicly called on Fiat to give guarantees and to explain what the deal means for its Italian operations, while a centrist union argues this is "good news for Fiat workers, for the auto industry and for our country."
Chrysler will now become a wholly owned member of the Fiat family, as it's been announced that the 41.46-percent stake in the Auburn Hills, MI-based manufacturer owned by the United Auto Workers' VEBA trust fund will be sold to the Italian company. Concluding the agreement will mark the closure of a piecemeal purchase process that could have resulted in an initial public offering.
The total cost of the sale will see the VEBA healthcare trust receive $4.35 billion, $3.65 billion of which will come from Fiat. $1.75 billion of that will be cash, while an additional $1.9 billion will be part of a "special distribution." An additional $700 million will be paid over four separate installments according to reports from Automotive News Europe and USA Today, although the shares will belong to Fiat following the first payment. The deal was reportedly initially struck on Sunday (though it is just being announced today), and is being portrayed as particularly good news for Fiat and Chrysler, which have now prevented the remaining shares going to the stock market in a UAW-forced IPO.
"The unified ownership structure will now allow us to fully execute our vision of creating a global automaker that is truly unique in terms of mix of experience, perspective and know-how, a solid and open organization that will ensure all employees a challenging and rewarding environment," Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a statement.
While American drivers may know Fiat principally (if not exclusively) for the 500, overseas the Italian marque offers a much broader range of products. But the Cinquecento has developed into a vastly more successful product than the rest of its lineup, so the Italian automaker has been rapidly replacing its slow-selling models by expanding the 500 family.
The original 500 hatchback has since been joined by the 500C convertible and larger 500L - not to mention the 500L Living seven-seater, 500e electric hatchback and numerous Abarth models. And soon, the Sedici is expected to be replaced by a new 500X. But that's not the end of it.
A new report from Auto Express indicates that Fiat is preparing to replace the slow-selling and rapidly aging Punto with a new five-door version of the 500. The model could adapt the current Punto's platform rather than stretching the 500's, but would carry the same retro styling as the rest of the Cinquecento range, slotting in between the three-door hatch and the larger 500L. Of course, the Punto was never offered Stateside, but as part of the 500 family, it figures to stand a better chance.
We knew there'd be no Chrysler IPO before the end of this year, but Fiat is determined to get the best run going into 2014 and is back at the poker table with the UAW. The delay was said to be Chrysler's desire to clean up a tax issue with the IRS; turns out that also bought the carmaker time to try and close a deal for the UAW's 48.5-percent stake in the company before the IPO happens.
Whereas the price Chrysler was willing to pay was once more than $1 billion under the UAW's asking price, the gap has closed to just $800 million of late. A recent valuation of the company at $10 billion - a valuation the UAW has disputed - means Fiat would be looking to pay about $4.2 billion instead of the $5 billion that the UAW seeks. But the UAW needs to hold out for the highest amount it can get because its pension obligations through the Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) are $3.1 billion greater than the VEBA's assets, which include the Chrysler stake.
There's a clause in the agreement that Fiat can buy the VEBA shares for $6 billion, but Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has said that the UAW "should buy a ticket for the lottery" if they even want $5 billion. The UAW, though, has more time to wait; it's Fiat that wants access to Chrysler's $11.9-billion war chest and that would like to avoid the risk of paying the full $6 billion for the UAW share if the float really takes off. With other valuations of Chrysler as high as $19 billion, a hot IPO could make that $6 billion look like a bargain.
In 1948, Willys-Overland, the forbearers of Jeep, built a vehicle called the Jeepster. It was a funky little thing, designed as a mix of the more rugged Jeeps that came before with what was then a modern car, which arguably makes it the world's first crossover. The name was later revived from 1966 to 1972, which means for Jeep enthusiasts, it has some history.
Now, the modern Jeep brand may revive the Jeepster name for a new product, likely based on Fiat bones, that will slot in at the bottom of the brand's range underneath the soon-to-depart Compass and Patriot. The report comes from Australia's Drive, which cites a dealer source that has seen the vehicle.
That same dealer confirmed there is a link between the Jeepster and the rumored Fiat 500X, and that the former will be available in both front and all-wheel-drive variants. The source also claims both gas and diesel engines will be available, although as this is an Aussie site, we shouldn't take that to mean we'll get a diesel Jeepster in the US.
There are some companies that could change leadership overnight and still remain more or less the operations that they are. But some have built themselves up around one central figure. Just ask Carlos Tavares, who found he couldn't escape the long shadow of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. Tavares recently left to find his own limelight. But Ghosn isn't the only executive who presides over two disparate automakers on opposite ends of the globe.
Having built up Fiat and Chrysler around himself, we can hardly imagine either automaker getting along without Sergio Marchionne. But the day will come when the famously sweater-clad bigwig will step down. The pressing questions remain when when that day will come, and who will take his place. The only solid clues we have are in the statements made mostly by Marchionne himself, but those statements have been all over the place. When speaking to Automotive News in 2012, he said he would step down "no earlier than 2013, no later than 2015." But a year later, he had already seemingly changed his tune, indicating he could still be at the helm in 2016. Fiat chairman John Elkann seems to think Marchionne, 61, could and should stay on longer.
With the Car and Driver Ten Best decided, the North American Car and Truck of the Year finalists announced and Cadillac, Ram and Subaru chalking up wins with Motor Trend, it's fair to say that the automotive awards season is in full swing. The next set of trophies to be handed out will be from Ward's Automotive, which has announced the winners of its 2014 10 Best Engines.
The latest contest was marked by the widespread emergence of diesel power and the continued success of turbocharged engines. There was even an electric motor on this year's list. In fact, only three of the ten winners were naturally aspirated and only two winners returned from last year.
"We weren't looking to throw the bums out, as they might say about an election. We were just really impressed with the flood of new powertrains," said Ward's Automotive Editor-in-Chief Drew Winter. Those new powertrains include the 83-kilowatt electric motor from the Fiat 500e, the 1.0-liter, EcoBoost three-cylinder from the Ford Fiesta and the 2.0-liter turbodiesel from the Chevrolet Cruze.
Naturally, you'd expect a massive automaker like Fiat to have an in-depth plan to exit the current European-market doldrums, and you'd expect that plan to include plenty of new vehicles to attract those precious buyers that still remain despite the financial downturn. And you'd be right, though Fiat does seem to have a few unexpected twists up its corporate sleeve.
Perhaps the biggest shocker is a report that Fiat will completely drop the Punto, a car with mass-market appeal aimed at small-car buyers cross-shopping the popular Volkswagen Polo. Its replacement will be a five-door Fiat 500 aimed at upmarket buyers (sounds awfully similar to the 500L) that will be built in Poland. Lower-end customers will reportedly be served by variants of the Fiat Panda.
Borrowing a page from the BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen playbook, reports Automotive News, Fiat is said to have plans to reignite production at its Italian factories by retooling them to build high-end vehicles from Maserati and Alfa Romeo. These will be marketed as premium products, built by skilled Italian workers (who are paid wages that are 75-percent higher than those building Fiats in Poland), and will be sold around the world.
The saying goes that man cannot live by bread alone, and neither can automakers live by selling one car alone. This holds especially true for automakers with a budding dealer network to support, like the Fiat brand, which returned to US shores in 2011 after a 28-year absence. The company's single car to sell at the time was the Fiat 500, a cute retro rebirth of the original, iconic Cinquecento, which your toddler now calls Luigi thanks to Pixar.
Since then, the new 500 has sold reasonably well here in the US, and the Fiat brand has been following the same playbook that another purveyor of pint-sized autos, Mini, has used: sell as many variants as you can of the one model you've got. So we have the 500, 500C drop top, high-performance 500 Abarth, all-electric 500e and a few additional trim levels and special editions to further fill dealer showrooms. But the axiom that automakers cannot live selling one car alone still stands, and so Fiat has finally introduced its second model, the larger 500L.
Executive Editor Chris Paukert completed our First Drive of the 500L back in June, and was left pleasantly surprised by its combination of utility, offbeat style, fun-to-drive demeanor and value. We've also, however, read some scathing reviews, like this one from The New York Times. I wasn't sure where the truth lay when the keys for this top-trim 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge were handed to me, but finding out would be but a short week of together time away.
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