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Flexibility key to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

It'll be months before we learn whether the 2015 Chrysler 200 midsize sedan is the sales hit the automaker hopes for, but what we know sheds valuable light on how the new Fiat Chrysler Automobiles develops vehicles.

I spent a couple of days with members of the 200 team in Louisville last week, driving through the rolling Kentucky countryside and learning about the car's features and engineering. I'll review the 200 when I get enough seat time to know what it's like to live with the latest from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Fiat took full ownership of Chrysler on Jan. 1, but the 200 is the third Chrysler Group vehicle to use an architecture based on the one Fiat developed for the sporty little Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback. The first two were the Dodge Dart compact sedan and Jeep Cherokee SUV.

That's a pretty broad range of vehicles from a single architecture — or platform, the auto industry's other term for a set of underbody components that can be used to make a variety of vehicles. The four Fiat Chrysler vehicles' wheelbases run from 103.7 inches (Giulietta) to 108 (the 200). Their lengths stretch from the Giulietta's 171.3 inches to the 200 at 192.3. That's on par with the flexibility Honda achieves with its Civic compact sedan, CR-V SUV, Accord midsize sedan and Pilot large crossover.

Chrysler can stretch the architecture farther, 200 chief engineer Doug Verley told me . He won't say what the limits are, but it can be used for vehicles a little bigger or smaller than the current range.

The floor pan and structural elements of the front third of the platform are nearly identical for the Dart, Cherokee and 200. The lengths of center and rear sections vary, depending as needed from one vehicle to another. The width of the vehicles' floor pans can vary slightly — the 200 is an inch wider than the Dart, for instance. All three vehicles were developed for maximum commonality.

“This is one way the whole company benefits,” Verley said. “If I need a unique part, can the other vehicles use it? We want the smallest amount of difference possible.”

That kind of efficiency is key to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' future. The merged company must share the cost of engineering architectures, engines and transmissions across the widest range of vehicles possible. What FCA has demonstrated with the Giulietta-to-200 stretch is a greater degree of engineering flexibility than most automakers can claim.

The emphasis on commonality means that any of the three plants building the vehicles — the 200 in Sterling Heights, Mich.; Cherokee in Toledo, Ohio; and Dart in Belvidere, Ill. — can theoretically build any of them. That could be handy if one vehicle sells much better or worse than expected.

“The process requires more advance planning and foresight to set up the necessary flexibility,” Verley said.

The list of features on the 200 benefits from sharing systems with the Cherokee. The 200 will be the only midsize sedan that can park itself, because some Jeep customers expect cutting-edge features. The innovative and fuel-efficient all-wheel drive system grew out of the Cherokee program.

“It's great to have those things available for our customers thanks to the Cherokee team's work,” Verley said.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at

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