Fiat Chrysler unveils its five-year plan

May 6, 2014, 6:16 PM UTC
Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne

FORTUNE — For sports car and cinema fans of a certain age, Alfa Romeo will evoke the 1600 Spider convertible driven by Benjamin Braddock, the confused and lovesick young man played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film The Graduate.

For Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of the newly merged Fiat and Chrysler automobile companies, Alfa Romeo symbolizes an unkept promise, namely to introduce the Italian luxury brand in the U.S. as part of the revitalization of both companies.

Marchionne, in a major public presentation today in Auburn Hills at Chrysler headquarters, is expected to disclose more about Alfa’s eventual arrival, as well as a detailed five-year plan of investments, vehicle introductions, and sales forecasts. Chrysler largely made good on its first five-year plan, conceived in the wake of the automaker’s 2009 bankruptcy. As chief executive of Fiat, Marchionne led Fiat’s purchase of the U.S. automaker for nearly nothing.

Analysts will be listening and watching Fiat Chrysler executives carefully to learn how soon Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV (FIATY) might be able to sell 6 million or more vehicles annually. That threshold is the one Marchionne identified several years ago as the minimum for economic viability of a global automaker, and that total might be higher today. Last year, Fiat and Chrysler jointly sold 4.4 million vehicles. IHS, a forecasting consultancy, sees sales of 5 million by 2018. The merged automaker will be incorporated and listed as a public company later this year.

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The Canadian-born CEO deserves credit, despite a few shortcomings, for maintaining the viability of an automobile enterprise that is slowed by two weak brands, Chrysler and Fiat, and sustained by two very strong ones, Jeep and Ram. He is a driven and hard-driving executive who, according to headhunters, pushes younger subordinates to the brink of exhaustion. Chrysler’s streak of monthly sales gains in the U.S. has reached 49 months. He keeps posting gains and, as such, keeps his company in the game.

The bright spots to be highlighted likely will include introduction of the Jeep Renegade, a subcompact sport-utility vehicle that’s expected to compete vigorously worldwide in one of the fast-growing product segments. Another will be the automaker’s plans to ramp up its efforts in China, the world’s biggest market and one of the fastest-growing.

Marchionne has promised six Alfa models in the U.S., starting with the 4C Spider, which has appeared recently at auto shows as a concept. Dave Sullivan, an analyst for AutoPacific, says Alfa will have an “uphill battle” against better established German, Japanese, and U.S. luxury brands.

Because luxury models are highly profitable compared to mainstream counterparts, they’re vital for generating revenue and for providing a way to spread the investment cost of developing advanced technologies across the entire spectrum of vehicles. Under his last five-year plan, Marchionne forecast that Alfa would reach the U.S. in 2012 and be selling 500,000 units worldwide by now. Last year, the brand sold just more than 64,000 in Europe.

Richard Hilgert, an analyst for Morningstar, thinks Fiat Chrysler intends to invest on the order of $55 billion over the next five years, much of it from capital markets, to pursue his company’s ambitious plans. Marchionne has never been one to back down in the face of ferocious competition or petrifying obstacles. The next five years are likely to prove as formidable difficult as the last.

But Sergio might take heart from the closing sequence of The Graduate. The Alfa runs out of gas — but Dustin Hoffman gets the girl anyway.

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