by Patrick McNamara and David Zatz
In 1999, DaimlerChrysler announced that Chrysler would start making or selling vehicles in India, most likely starting with the Cherokee, Neon, and Voyager, but those plans evaporated, leaving behind only plans for an Indian engineering center.
In 2007, talks between DaimlerChrysler and the Indian government became public; the plan was to use Chrysler as the entry brand into the continent. When Daimler sold Chrysler to Cerberus, the talks accelerated, and a new technical center in Chennai was set up by the end of the year. This center, Fiat and Chrysler’s largest outside of Turin and Detroit, was given much of the worldwide responsibility for computer modeling; the center is now focusing on “reverse innovation” – developing cutting-edge solutions from existing products.
In 2011, Mike Manley was made chief operating officer of Fiat and Chrysler in the Asia-Pacific region, and charged with turning around Fiat in India. Two brands are being targeted, Fiat and Jeep. Both have long histories in India, and both have long been minor players; Jeep entered in 1949, Fiat a few years later. Fiat was more successful, ending up with a market share of over 40%, but in 2011, its share was down to around ½%.
Fiat’s B and C segment vehicles will be refreshed and brought to the Indian market (nine cars by 2016); this includes a refresh of the Linea and Punto, and a Fiat B-segment SUV. The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Wrangler were originally set to be launched in 2014; they ended up being sold in September 2016.
India may also become an export hub for right-hand-drive vehicles in the future, as Australia was during the late 1960s and 1970s. An independent distribution company has already been established for Fiat, and the 2013 plan was to have 112 Fiat dealers and 82 Jeep dealers across India by 2016.
According to one former Chrysler engineer, “Nagesh was mentored in Detroit at Jeep/Truck Engineering in and Auburn Hills by Bob Holdreith (RIP), one of the best suspension engineers I've ever known.”
Indian Autos Blog recently interviewed Nagesh Basavanahalli, Managing Director of Chrysler India Automotive, and provided us with permission to reprint the interview.
Is [the 2014 Grand Cherokee shown in Detroit] the model that will launch in India?
Nagesh: Yes. The one that you saw is the one that’s coming. We waited to get the latest product to India and India’s going to get the latest technology and the latest product.
Has your company [Chrysler India] played a role in this product?
Nagesh: Both the 2014 as well as the original  Grand Cherokee, which was just launched back a couple of years ago, right when we first started an alliance with Fiat and Chrysler. A significant part of that was worked out of the Chennai technical center and even our China technical center. So we played a role, whether it was in terms of the design, development, or engineering of certain components, especially in the case of interior and electrical and stuff like that, also sourcing some of the components from China. So Asia-PAC had a big role to play as part of the development of the Grand Cherokee program.
I know the Liberty’s also moving to the next generation [KL Cherokee]…
Nagesh: You're well informed, yes.
Are you playing a role in those?
Nagesh: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because we started our Genesis engineering center here supporting Chrysler, we grew from supporting one program to now we’re supporting pretty much all the programs for Chrysler out of America. Pretty much all the programs. Since then, we've expanded our presence because of the [expansion of the Fiat and Chrysler] group presence [in Asia] now. We are also supporting Fiat in Europe, so Chrysler in Europe. We are also supporting Fiat Chrysler in America. So now, if anything else, to answer your question, absolutely. Pretty much all the programs that Detroit is involved in from an after perspective, we are involved in some shape or other. In some cases it may be limited; in some cases, it may be very extensive. It depends upon the scope.
So as a global technical center… for example, in some cases, we may be working on seats. In some cases, we may be working on door trims or exterior. But in some cases, like the entire computer simulation, it’s all done here. It’s pretty much globally about 60% of the workload for the computer simulation, right, is all done here. So it’s done out of the Indian technical center.
The Compass which was shown at Detroit, the minor facelift, was there some input coming from your side?
Nagesh: Definitely. On the simulation, and I think on some parts of interior, but definitely on the simulation side, significant involvement from us. Yes. Computer simulation, I mean CIE and snapping simulation and all of that.
Moving on to the next product, the B-Jeep, which is going to be a big segment. [Renegade]
Nagesh: We don’t know the name yet.
Is it going to be sort of based on Fiat’s more wide platform which is used on the 500x?
Nagesh: Because it’s a brand new platform and because the work is just beginning and a lot of the things are on the drawing board, I would not like to get into the details. A lot of options are taken into consideration.
The Jeep platform is very special to us. The Jeep customer has unique tastes: go anywhere, do anything, be available. Right? So taking a look at the global requirements of the Jeep, because it’s going to be a global product, it’s going to be done up for several parts of the world.
Obviously it’s also going to be brought into India, but [meeting] unique Indian requirements. The way we do that cycle is we take a look, okay, these are the requirements from several parts of the world. It goes in. And then there is a core design that comes out. And then we also say okay, what are the things that we need to do to satisfy the Indian customer more or the European customer more, right? So it may get done afterwards. So we’re looking at several options in terms of the platform. But the bottom line is it will be a true Jeep. It will be a Jeep, and it will be on the right platform.
The engines for this particular Jeep, so is it going to… considering it as something small in Jeep. It isn't known for doing anything small. So would you use the 1.4 T-Jet [Fiat diesel engine]?
Nagesh: Well, because it’s a future product strategy issue, I would not like to comment on that. But just stay tuned. I think some very interesting stuff is going on. We will be discussing that in the near future.
We asked Mr. Marchionne whether they would bring a lightened Wrangler to India. Being an average Indian, even if I'm an upper enthusiast, the Wrangler looks like a glorified Mahindra car to me.… I think, you know, which is the original which is a copy? But it looks, to the layman’s eye, like something that is not very premium. So it’s not like a luxurious SUV that Jeep promises to be. But he said we will not do any watering down. We will not do a stripped down edition as such because the Wrangler stands for something and values would be lost. Is there any narrowization kind of program that you follow with the Wrangler?
Nagesh: No, like he said, the Wrangler is a brand icon. It’s our pillar because it stands for everything. It’s one anchor of the brand, right? So we will continue to protect that product, right? To your point also, I think we all know which is the original. So we know the capability, we know the capacity, we know what the product can do. And we feel when customers take a look at the product, I think they will make the right decision. So absolutely not. The product will speak for itself when it comes.
Has the testing of the Wrangler and the Cherokee started here? Because you need to do the trials…
Nagesh: We are continuously doing several things over the last several months and the answer is yes, we are doing everything we can get to get the product ready for the Indian customer.
Thanks to Indian Autos Blog • See their interview
More Mopar Car and Truck News
1957 Nash spotted • New JL Wrangler pics - now wearing less camoflage • Dodge Demon hints...