It might not be the end of the road for the Fiat brand in India just yet. FCA India Automobiles, the Indian subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the Italian-American company formed after Chrysler's merger with Fiat, may turn out to be the proverbial knight in shining armour for the beleaguered Turin-based brand, which has had a checkered past in India.
Having tasted some success with the made-in-India Jeep Compass, a premium SUV, the local arm of the Italian-American carmaker is working on a platform that will spawn both Fiat and Jeep models for the mass segment as it seeks to make deeper inroads into India’s competitive passenger vehicle market, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans. The move will mark another innings for Fiat-badged models in India.
“It is a very special brand for us and it has been in the marketplace for long. In no way are we going to wash our hands of the Fiat brand,” said Kevin Flynn, president and managing director of FCA India, in an interview at his plush new office on the 16th floor in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex — a prominent business centre, even as he refused to be drawn into specifics.
The new platform would churn out a compact SUV that is likely to be pitted against the Suzuki Vitara Brezza, and a sedan and a compact car that would compete with the Suzuki Swift and Dzire, said the person cited above. While the compact SUV is likely to have Jeep badging, the car models will be launched under the Fiat brand and will replace the Linea and Punto models. Starting with the compact SUV, the models from the new platform will start rolling out in 2020, the year India switches to Bharat Stage VI emission norms. The company has already floated a request for quotation among suppliers for the models. FCA is also going to invest in a new facility that will make gasoline engines compliant with the new emission norms, he said. The company spokesperson declined to comment on future projects.
If anything, Fiat’s new address in India, which is a departure from the dusty by-lanes of Kurla to a corporate business centre, and the new-found success manifested through the Jeep brand, has emboldened Flynn and his team. FCA India launched the Jeep Compass in mid-August and has delivered over 13,000 vehicles to channel partners till December.
FCA has also commenced exports of the locally made model to several right-hand drive markets of the world, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK. Exports of the Compass with a made-India-tag to such mature automobile markets were a huge confidence booster, said Flynn, pointing out that as much as establishing the Jeep Compass tops his agenda, Fiat is not off his radar.
“We have just concluded research that tells us there is still a strong resonance for Fiat in India. The key thing for us is to build a business model that is sustainable. We continue to study the right solution,” said Flynn, adding that many customers were buying the Jeep models because they had been Fiat owners.
A household name in India, Fiat's fortunes were tied to Premier Automobiles, which went through a rough period in the late 1990s. Since then, Fiat has made several attempts to gain a foothold in India. In 2006, it struck a dual partnership with Tata Motors. This included a joint manufacturing facility in India that will produce cars for both firms and a distribution agreement under which Fiat will retail its products through Tata Motors’ outlets. While the latter had to be disbanded in April 2013, the manufacturing joint venture between Tata Motors and Fiat continues. “Fiat is still a great brand in terms of design and engineering. It is just that its build quality is inconsistent and after sales service is bad,” said Avik Chattopadhyay, co-founder at Expereal, a brand consulting firm, adding that the learnings from the Jeep Compass should help them in improvising Fiat models.
He, however, pointed out that FCA could lose some traction if it just relied on the Compass and the next new model comes out only in 2020. It is critical that FCA has a steady stream of new products. “It is very easy to lose momentum. It is only a matter of time before rivals like Suzuki and Toyota launch an SUV to take on the Compass,” he said. What may also work against FCA is not having a plan for zero emission vehicles.
ON THE ROAD
Feb 2015: Kevin Flynn takes charge as managing director and president of FCA India
Feb 2016: Jeep unveils Grand Cherokee and Wrangler at the Auto Expo
June 2017: FCA commences production of Jeep Compass at the Ranjangaon factory
August 2017: Locally made Jeep Compass goes on sale