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Published: Wednesday, 4/21/2010

Report: Nitro will become a Fiat in Europe

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Top officials with Chrysler Group LLC and its Italian auto partner, Fiat SpA, are expected to lay out their five-year business plan today in Turin, Italy.

And according to one industry publication, that plan will include the transformation of the Toledo-made Dodge Nitro into a Fiat - at least in Europe.

Automotive News reported in advance of the meeting that the Nitro "will become a Fiat-brand model by the end of the year." A spokesman for Chrysler refused to comment on the report. The report was unclear whether the move would mean that the Nitro would continue to be manufactured locally, or might be moved outside North America.

The vehicle, considered a large SUV in Europe and a compact SUV in North America, has suffered slow sales for years.

In March, just 1,640 Nitros were sold in the United States, compared to 4,209 units of its sister vehicle, the Jeep Liberty. Both the Nitro and Liberty are manufactured at Chrysler's Toledo North Assembly plant. Last year, just 17,443 of the vehicles were sold in the United States, a decline of 52 percent from the 36,368 units sold during 2008.

Chrysler has already taken some steps to boost Nitro sales, making several options standard, such as a larger 4.0-liter engine and 20-inch wheels. It also introduced new special editions of the SUV during the North American International Auto Show aimed at increasing its popularity.

In the five-year business plan Chrysler officials unveiled in November, 2009, Dodge Brand President Ralph Gilles indicated the Nitro would undergo "a major modification" in 2011, and the vehicle's future beyond that date was under consideration.

State officials confirmed to The Blade earlier this year that Chrysler is in talks with local officials to expand its manufacturing operations in Toledo, potentially adding shifts and products to the Toledo North plant. However, no official announcement of Chrysler's plans for its Toledo facilities has been made.

Earlier yesterday, Fiat said that Agnelli family heir and company vice chairman John Elkann will become its board chairman. The Agnelli family owns the controlling stake in Fiat, and Mr. Elkann's grandfather, Gianni Agnelli, ran the company for decades.

Fiat said its board will formally approve the pick of Mr. Elkann, 34, at a meeting today when Fiat presents its five-year business plan, which will include new models and a tighter integration with Chrysler.

Also yesterday, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, chairman since 2004, announced he is stepping down.

This report includes information from the Associated Press.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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