Chrysler sets sales pace for U.S. automakers and gives parent Fiat a lifeline.

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Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 12:00 am

DETROIT — Just a few years ago, as it plunged into bankruptcy, Chrysler was a wreck of a company. But strong sales and hot new products have made the automaker the envy of Detroit.

And Chrysler's unlikely revival is accelerating, leaving General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. scrambling to catch up.

Chrysler, the smallest of the U.S. automakers, unveiled new versions of its Grand Cherokee and Compass SUVs at the annual Detroit auto show this week. The two Jeep models have helped propel the company's strong sales growth since its government bailout and bankruptcy in 2009.

Chrysler outperformed the industry last year with a 20.6 percent increase in domestic sales in a market that grew by 13.4 percent. Its bread-and-butter products like the Grand Cherokee and the Ram pickup had big gains, and new cars like the Dodge Dart began to mitigate the company's traditional reliance on larger vehicles.

By comparison, sales increased just 3.7 percent at GM and 4.7 percent at Ford.

Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of both Chrysler and its Italian parent, Fiat, said he expected Chrysler's upward sales trend to continue this year, particularly in pickup trucks and SUVs.

“I think there's a general feeling that the U.S. market is in healthy shape,” Marchionne said. “And we're certainly going to improve in the market.”

Marchionne is laying plans to build a new, entry-level Jeep at an underutilized Fiat plant in Italy — evidence of how the U.S. company is shepherding its European parent company through difficult times.

Sales of Chrysler products now account for more than 60 percent of the total vehicles sold under the Fiat corporate umbrella, which also includes brands like Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

When Marchionne negotiated Fiat's acquisition of Chrysler during its federal bailout, industry executives were skeptical that the U.S. company could thrive after the failures of its previous owners, German carmaker Daimler and the private-equity firm Cerberus.

Now, however, “it's not Fiat saving Chrysler; it's Chrysler saving Fiat,” said David Cole, a founder of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

While Chrysler appears poised to build on last year's gains, GM and Ford are retrenching after lagging in 2012.

GM brought some sizzle to the Detroit show Monday with the introduction of a sleek, new version of its Corvette sports car. But the more important products were redesigns of the company's Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.

The pickup market is expected to grow this year as a result of increased housing starts and other construction activity. GM had been losing truck sales to Chrysler and Ford, but is counting on the new models to become more competitive.

“I don't think our timing could have been any better for the new trucks,” said Mark Reuss, head of GM's North American operations.

GM is also hoping that its recent agreement with the Treasury Department to reduce its investment stake in the company will attract consumers who were opposed to its government bailout and avoided its products.

Ford, the only U.S. automaker to survive without bankruptcy and government aid, on Monday unveiled a future concept version of the Lincoln MKC compact SUV. The model is considered a key part of Ford's efforts to revitalize the Lincoln brand.

Tuesday, Ford offered an early peek at the next generation of the F-series pickup truck, with features that boost fuel economy.

“Ford is hoping that by showing the concept F-150, it will stop buyers from purchasing from its rivals, especially the new Silverado and Sierra,” said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for the auto research site TrueCar.com.

At Chrysler, Marchionne said a crucial part of the growth will come from its Jeep brand.

The company this week showed off the first diesel-engine version of the Grand Cherokee, which officials said could get 30 mpg in highway driving.

A new version of the Jeep Liberty is scheduled to be introduced later this year, Marchionne said. Also coming this year is the compact Jeep that will be built alongside a Fiat model in the Italian plant.

The plan helps solve Fiat's glaring overcapacity issues in Europe, where vehicle sales have dropped to their lowest level in years. Tuesday, Chrysler and Fiat also announced plans to build one Jeep model in China.

Marchionne said it was important for Chrysler to expand its product lineup to help Fiat weather the European sales crisis, which is affecting most auto companies there.

He said that overcoming the “threat of complacency” is Chrysler's biggest issue. Speaking after the company's Ram pickup won the truck of the year award at the Detroit show, Marchionne had already moved on.

“Celebration is fine. I'm delighted,” he said. “But it's over.”

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