Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 31, 2012

How Fiat Stole A Mercedes

What a strange journey it has been for the Dodge Journey.

It started life on a drawing board at DaimlerChrysler more than eight years ago, and after a few twists and turns, it now runs around Europe wearing a Fiat badge.

How did this happen? And why is Sergio Marchionne laughing?

I believe the Journey was first incarnated as a re-bodied Chrysler Pacifica. The Pacifica was a flubbed German attempt to push Chrysler up-market, with a classy looking minivan/station wagon. Americans didn’t buy the idea – literally. The Pacifica appeared in 2003, and by 2007 it was cancelled because of slow sales. (Used Pacificas are rather well regarded these days as used cars.)

The Dodge Journey had a splashy “international premiere” in September 2007 at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany. Why Germany – for a Dodge?

The idea at the time was leverage the Journey’s “European styling” heritage to help turn Dodge into an international brand. Dodge had almost zero international sales at the time. (Chrysler had made a small beach-head in Europe sometime before; Jeep already had a small cult following outside the United States.)

But then that whole idea unraveled when DaimlerChrysler itself unraveled in 2007. So, Dodge’s dreams of international sales glory were dashed, the Journey was not exported after all.

Instead it was dropped into the North American market with little fanfare, and even less hope. Its Mercedes DNA helped it out, I guess, and so did its relatively reasonable price (especially vis a vis other crossover sport utility vehicles).

But Dodge, caught up in Chrysler’s bankruptcy, had no plans to ever spend another dime on developing the Journey. The Journey was just going be allowed to die a quiet death. Except that it didn’t die. The Journey soldiered on, selling in unexpectedly decent numbers. (Ezra Dyer chronicles its recent U.S. sales history in today’s Automobiles section of The New York Times.)

When Fiat Group bought a stake in Chrysler, chief executive Sergio Marchionne, was looking around for ways to save money by sharing models. He looked at the Journey and saw something he could turn into a small CUV for product-starved Fiat, with little or no investment.

With no expectations whatsoever, he re-badged the Journey as the “Fiat Freemont”. And it became a sleeper hit. Fiat increased production orders for it a couple of times, and finally decided to spend some money to update its powertrain and interior. The body is really getting long in the tooth…going into its seventh year with no real changes. But its looks have aged well, and although it feels and drives like a 2007-era car, it remains a pleasant ride. Actually, its Mercedes DNA makes it something of a stand-out in a lineup of Fiat econoboxes.

But it’s almost a new car still in Europe…so maybe it won’t get any real styling love soon…or ever.

But it’s funny how the Journey wound up realizing its original intention, as a European CUV – years after it was written off. Marchionne thinks it is rather funny that Mercedes has, in a roundabout way, handed Fiat the gift of a best-selling CUV – something even Mercedes doesn’t really have.

Jerry Garrett

December 31, 2012

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