Sergio Marchionne, the plainspoken, sweatered CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles pulled few punches in public—and fewer in private. Longtime interior designer at FCA, Klaus Busse, tweeted Wednesday that design reviews with Marchionne “weren’t easy.”
“If he did not like what he saw he made sure you knew…When he liked it, it came with a cliffhanger ‘what the f… is this? – it looks amazing!'” Busse wrote.
Marchionne’s famously abrasive attitude shows in the cars that helped define his tenure atop one of the world’s largest automakers. From high horsepower and seductive shapes, to furious flame outs and an SUV “unfit for human consumption,” the cars that Marchionne left behind are almost as memorable as the man.
Here’s a short list of the cars we’ll remember from a CEO we’re not likely to forget:
Alfa Romeo Giulia
It read like a love letter to drivers and car fans around the world, even though Marchionne may not have been a bred-in-the-bone car guy. He was a trained tax accountant and lawyer, after all.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia brought back the Italian automaker to the U.S. mainstream, even if it largely flopped. “Giving a voice to the real Alfa Romeo was a moral imperative,” he said when the Giulia was unveiled. Especially with a Ferrari-derived V-6, the Giulia’s voice spoke loudly to us all.
Even if another car on our list strictly qualified as a “compliance car,” the Dodge Dart (and related Chrysler 200) certainly fit the bill, too. The Dodge Dart helped fulfill the terms laid out by the U.S. government for the brokered merger between Fiat and Chrysler in 2009 and the subsequent government loans.
A high-mileage Eco version of the Dart was harder to spot than a suit on Sergio, but the Dart’s relatively short run helped bring the company back from financial ruin. Just as quickly as it was developed and launched, it was unceremoniously killed — another Marchionne hallmark — but its modular platform underpins other vehicles still very much alive in the FCA portfolio, including the Jeep Cherokee.
The new Jeep Wrangler unveiled in 2018 is an explicit understanding of FCA’s past and future. The boxy, tall SUV is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessors, a relative rarity among new cars that have smoothed over shapes for better fuel economy — or a capitulation to trends.
The old-school Wrangler figures heavily into FCA’s future, too. It’s a bestseller for Jeep and an icon for purists. Marchionne’s favor for the Wrangler was clear; his last public appearance was to present police in Italy with a Jeep Wrangler in June.
Fiat 124 Spider
The Fiat 124 Spider was intentionally and unintentionally important for FCA in the U.S.
First, the automaker’s partnership with Mazda for the 124 Spider/MX-5 Miata signified a willingness to join with other automakers to bring to market niche vehicles that were important to their brands, but perhaps not commercial blockbusters. The Fiat 124 Spider also showed Marchionne’s unflagging attitude toward protecting provincial brands in his portfolio.
Although the 124 Spider easily could have been called an Alfa Romeo Spider (a name with better cachet in the U.S. that lasted until the 1990s), Marchionne famously insisted that an Alfa must be built in Italy, not Japan where the Fiat 124 Spider is assembled.
Just as easily as Marchionne quashed any idea of building Alfa Romeos in Japan, he favored vaulting Jeep to a worldwide audience. That meant building the Jeep Renegade in Melfi, Italy.
The Renegade became the first Italian-built Jeep sold in America and the smallest Jeep on sale since World War II. The Renegade is a global Jeep with roughly 14 different powertrains available worldwide and it is built alongside the Fiat 500X crossover.
Ram 1500 EcoDiesel
Although the Ram 1500 full-size pickup predated Marchionne’s tenure as CEO of FCA, the diesel engine sourced from VM Motori had his fingerprints all over it. The 3.0-liter diesel engine was ported to the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the U.S. and touted to be a fuel-economy champ in for rapidly growing pickups and SUVs in FCA’s portfolio.
In 2017, when federal investigators accused FCA of illegal emissions violations, Marchionne loudly struck back at comparisons between FCA and Volkswagen by saying critics must be “smoking illegal material.”
As head of Ferrari, Marchionne pushed the exclusive Italian exotic automaker to new places. He feuded with former Chairman Luca di Montezemelo about plans to produce more Ferraris and reportedly kept several of the expensive road cars near the FCA test track in Balocco, Italy, to drive.
Despite Marchionne’s publicly lukewarm feelings toward electrification, he warmly embraced hybrids as part of Ferrari’s future — something once unthinkable for the Italian automaker.
Despite warm feelings for Ferrari’s electrified future, Marchionne famously threw cold water on the all-electric Fiat 500. Although the Fiat 500 had already won accolades in Europe before it was brought over to the U.S., the Fiat 500e was begrudgingly built and buried in Fiat’s portfolio as a “compliance car” that only existed so his company could sell other cars in California.
“I hope you don’t buy it,” Marchionne said in 2014. “Every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.”
The Commander certainly predates Marchionne’s tenure at the top of FCA, but his vociferous criticism for the big SUV portended his leadership style. Calling the Commander “unfit for human consumption” while models were still at dealership lots, Marchionne set a frank tone early.
Later in his career, he seemingly challenged VW’s CEO to a fistfight: “If Volkswagen, through its chief executive, thinks that it needs to do something, tell them to show up tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock at our stand,” he said at the 2012 Paris auto show. Later, he quashed rumors about a Ferrari SUV: “You’d have to shoot me first,” he said.
In 2015 he offered a bizarre proposal to merge with crosstown rival GM by saying, “I can hug you nicely, I can hug you tightly,” according to Automotive News.
Dodge Challenger Hellcat
Marchionne’s leadership led FCA through the brink of ruin thanks, in part, to cars like the Challenger Hellcat. Even though the Challenger’s (and Charger’s) origination predates Marchionne’s tenure, it was the high-power show of the Challenger Hellcat that distracted many from the automaker’s relatively bare product portfolio.
In a few years, the Challenger and Charger emerged as moneymakers for Dodge and the overpowered supercharged V8 engine in these raucous muscle cars epitomized the CEO’s penchant of creating something from relatively nothing—perhaps his legacy.
He summarized his climb at the Brookings Institute on the automaker’s bailout in 2014.
“I mean, this is a company that had been run by a foreign entity for a long period of time that had taken all its wares on the way out. In 2006-2007 it had been flipped over to financially competent, industrially incompetent private equity investors who had run it for a period of time and then run into a brick wall in the middle of a crisis…it was a question of really rebuilding the company culture and rebuilding our portfolio and the business from scratch.”