Will U.S. Car Buyers Take to a Mid-Sized Hatchback?

Chrysler Group’s approach to this year’s Detroit Auto Show was low-key to say the least. Aside from an over-abundance of leggy models and a handful of Fiat offerings, including the Fiat 500 EV concept vehicle, the automaker’s appearance was perfunctory at best – with one possible exception.

Placed unobtrusively near the edge of the stand, a Lancia Delta hatchback sporting the distinctive Chrysler grille offered a glimpse of what the new Chrysler-Fiat marriage may offer American car buyers in the not-too-distant future.

Chrysler provided no specifications and issued no press releases on the curious vehicle.

In a somewhat off-the-cuff response to journalist’s questions, Lancia CEO Olivier Francois said, "We just wanted to figure out what a Lancia would look like with a Chrysler grille."

The vehicle on display at the Detroit Auto Show was Francois’ own personal vehicle that had been shipped from Italy and adorned with a Chrysler grille by the company’s chief designer, Ralph Gilles, and his team in December.

Chrysler–Fiat CEO, Sergio Marchionne, plans to integrate the best of both brands to produce new products designed to meet market-specific wants and needs. According to Chrysler Group senior vice president of engineering, Scott Kunselman, the automaker is trying to determine whether North American consumers will buy mid-sized hatchback models like the Lancia Delta.

Fiat currently markets the Lancia Delta in Europe and positions it between the Honda Accord mid-size model and the Ford Focus compact. Kunselman said the Lancia Delta offers the length necessary to compete against the Accord and the close-to-compact width to successfully compete with compact segment models like the Focus.

To fill the void between its mid-sized Delta and supermini Ypsilon model, Fiat is reportedly considering building a new model which Francois has referred to as the ‘Deltina’. No official name has been chosen and Francois says the automaker is in the preliminary stages of determining the feasibility of such a bridge model.

Although European buyers have embraced the mid-size hatchback design of the Lancia Delta, Kunselman acknowledges that North American consumers have tended to gravitate toward mid-size sedan designs.

Chrysler’s mid-size lineup has not competed well in recent years and the company plans to launch a number of new Fiat-based, mid-sized models in the North American market as early as model-year 2012.

For the near-term, Chrysler plans to offer re-engineered versions of its Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger later this year. Both models have been criticized for their lack of refinement and under-performing powertrains. Kunselman said the revamped models will “fix most of the flaws perceived by the public today.”

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