By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - The Chrysler 200 mid-sized sedan to be rolled out this week at the Detroit auto show will be the third model built on the same European-based vehicle architecture by Chrysler Group LLC, as the company moves forward with a design strategy focused on slashing development times and costs.
Chrysler and its Italian parent, Fiat SpA (MIL:F), are playing catch-up with other global automakers such as crosstown rivals General Motors Co (GM.N) and Ford Motor Co (NYS:F) in developing cost-cutting shared architectures.
And with mid-sized sedans being the largest segment of the car market, the new Chrysler 200 will come under sharp scrutiny.
Chrysler's platform-sharing effort began in earnest shortly after its 2009 bankruptcy, when the company came under control of Fiat and Fiat's chief executive, Sergio Marchionne.
The 2015 Chrysler 200 is the latest Chrysler model and fifth in the Fiat-Chrysler fold to share vehicle architecture. The platform was first used for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Then came the Dodge Dart, the first car jointly designed by Fiat and Chrysler, then the Fiat Viaggio made and sold in China, and most recently the Jeep Cherokee SUV.
By 2016, when Fiat and Chrysler are expected to have merged into a single company, more than 1 million vehicles are expected to have been built off the architecture, including some models not yet given the green light for production, said Mark Chernoby, who is in charge of engineering and product planning for Chrysler.
The 200 has had the smoothest path to production of any of the vehicles on what Chrysler calls its compact U.S.-wide architecture, Chernoby said.
"This is one of the huge values of common architectures," he said.
The launch of the Dart was bumpy as automatic transmission cars weren't readily available, and the Cherokee's launch in October was delayed by two months because of issues related to the company's new nine-speed transmission.
The Dart, the Cherokee and the 200 share between 50 percent and 70 percent of their parts, which cuts costs significantly, although Chernoby would not provide details.
The company also saves money on developing models by shaving development time by about five months for each one, compared with bringing a car to production from scratch, Chernoby said.
The common parts are almost entirely those not noticed by the customer. A Dodge still needs to look and feel like a Dodge, a Jeep a Jeep, and a Fiat a Fiat, said Chernoby.
Marchionne, who is chief executive of both Fiat and of Chrysler, took a big step toward his plan to merge the two companies with a deal announced early this month for Fiat to buy the 41.46 percent of Chrysler is does not already own. The deal is to close by January 20.
But a merger of the companies it not likely to change the plans to share architectures of compact and mid-size models, which would have happened anyway, Chernoby said.
Plans to use a common architecture for the Dart, the Cherokee and the 200 date back to 2009 when Marchionne and Chrysler's and Fiat's designers and engineers began planning the products that have since come out, as well as those yet to come.
The same underpinning for these vehicles will be the basis for "most if not all of our" compact and mid-size cars in the next few years as well, said Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau.
TOUGH MIDSIZE COMPETITION
Chrysler's efforts in bringing out the new 200 are being closely watched, because of the importance of the mid-sized sedan market.
"A capable mid-size sedan remains the biggest hole in Chrysler's lineup, putting pressure on the sleek new 200 to succeed in that high-volume, highly competitive segment," said Karl Brauer, analyst with research firm Kelley Blue Book.
Last year, the Chrysler 200 placed ninth among mid-size sedans, with sales of 122,500, down 2.4 percent.
This is the second redo of the Chrysler 200.
This time, the car is the product of a few years of design and development work, rather than the rush refreshing job introduced in 2010 fix the old Chrysler Sebring, which was allowed to languish under the company's previous owners, Cerberus Capital Management.
"Clearly the expectations are going to be a bit higher" for the 2015 Chrysler 200, said Mike Jackson, IHS director of North American vehicle production forecasting.
(Additional reporting by Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit; Editing by Leslie Adler)