In discovering America, it was an Italian who welded forever the economic and cultural links between the Old and New Worlds.
More recently, the U.S. has been the most vital mass distribution market for some of the Italy’s finest products—food, film, and fast cars, to cite a few.
Now, thanks to Turin-based Fiat’s acquisition of about a fifth of Chrysler, that relationship is expanding into the North American commercial vehicles sector, including, perhaps, the heavy-truck market.
Fred Diaz, the head of Dodge’s Ram Trucks brand (now a standalone nameplate distinct from Dodge) first hinted at the possibility last fall when he unveiled details of Ram’s five-year business plan.
In an exclusive interview with Today’s Trucking, Diaz recently expounded on the idea of Chrysler re-entering the class 8 segment after a 35-year absence. (The automotive giant dropped its HD lineup — in which the Big Horn was the flagship tractor — during the mid-70’s recession).
"We are, for a fact, seriously considering the possibility of getting into the class 8 segment of trucking and the vehicle that would go along with that," says Diaz.
He did emphasize, though, that producing a heavy-duty truck is not part of Ram Trucks’ immediate plans. The priority over the next four years or so will be the introduction of new or redesigned pick-up, light- and medium-duty cab chassis lines, and commercial vans (more on that below).
"Once we have successfully accomplished all that, is when we will investigate even stronger about getting into the class 8 market. But we need to get our house in order before we do that."
If it happens — and judging purely by Diaz’s enthusiasm right now, we’d peg the odds about the same as this writer NOT breaking 100 in his next golf game (pretty good) — Ram will undoubtedly do it with the support of Fiat’s Iveco division, which is the third-largest commercial vehicle maker in the world.
Although he couldn’t comment on specifics, Diaz did say that it’s a safe bet Ram "has plans to take advantage of Iveco’s expertise" in this market.
"Lets face it, we’re infants when it comes to class 8, so we would definitely rely heavily with the experts at Iveco, and to a lesser extent, Fiat."
In such an event, Ram would probably have to create an entire class 8 platform within the group. "We would require a [team] to specifically focus on class 8 because that’s such a huge animal all by itself that we would have to grow into it," says Diaz.
As well, the company would have to build the infrastructure that could accommodate heavy-duty sales, expertise and service. "We realize that our network is not built for class 8 trucking … so what we’re looking at will have to involve heavy dealer network involvement and investment as well. That plan would have to be investigated heavily."
One caveat, arguably, is that as a European and Asian industry heavyweight, Iveco produces mainly cabovers, which are all but extinct from class 8 dealer lots on this side of the pond.
However, the Italian truckmaker does produce a conventional big-bore-powered tractor called the Powerstar for the Australian market, which could conceivably be fitted for North American highways.
As European-based truck OEMs Daimler and Volvo are already aware, North American truck buyers are still somewhat skeptical of the vertically-integrated, Swiss-Army-Knife-approach to truck spec’ing.
And Diaz knows that’s something that Ram and Fiat will have to keep in mind if an Italo-American truck is to become a reality here.
"Right now I don’t believe that the North American consumer is more accepting of the one-side-fits-all approach that the rest of the world may be accustomed to," notes Diaz. "I know that to be a successful Ram truck dealer, you have to have well-trained expert sales people that know how to truck rate.
"If you put the customer in the wrong truck, you have a problem. And particularly with medium- and heavy-duty customers, they don’t mess around. They need a truck that gets the job done and you better give them the right truck."
Will there ever be a completely integrated global truck here? "Who knows?" says Diaz. "If there is one day, maybe we’ll be the ones who create it."
But if Diaz has a say at all, it’s clear he’d let customers answer that question for themselves.
Considering the economy is still quite slow to fully climb out of a cavernous recession, is there any room for an eighth heavy-duty nameplate battling for share of a freight market that we keep hearing will cede volume to rail and marine going forward?
It’s difficult to say for sure — and obviously that’s why Ram will take a few years to study the landscape — but Diaz emphasized his faith in the general freight economy, and trucking in particular.
"We’re taking a slightly more conservative view on how we think the economy is going to improve to make sure our business plan is intact … [but] we don’t believe there’s going to be a shutdown of truck freight going forward," he says. "That will continue to be a mainstay for economies of the U.S. and Canada."
In fact, it’s not so coincidental that Ram’s potential class 8 schedule coincides with forecasted freight level increases and likely a period of pent-up truck demand.
On the light- and medium-duty front, Ram Trucks is the midst of a significant overhaul.
The company no longer has a commercial diesel van since its partnership with Daimler ended and the German automaker took back the Sprinter.
You might still find a few on Dodge dealer lots, but it’ll be 2012 when Ram begins marketing a new Iveco-based van, most likely the Daily series, which comes in tall van, cab-chassis and bus versions. The Iveco Ducato — a smaller and lighter van—and the Doblo (smaller still) are also possibilities.
Iveco tried selling a diesel van in the U.S. in the ’80s, but it reportedly wasn’t very reliable in cold climates. However, things are different now with the two companies sharing capital and trading expertise, assets and almost unlimited product offerings — think of it sort of like a la carte automotive.
"We are definitely looking at the full stable of products between Fiat and Iveco," says Diaz. "That’s the beauty of this partnership right now. Whatever they have that we like, it’s like an open book and [vice-versa]."
Ram Trucks also just introduced a redesigned class 3-to-5 cab chassis lineup — the 3500, 4500 and 5500 — with increased axle and GVW ratings. The class 3 is powered by a 5.7 liter hemi, while the latter two run on a 305-hp Cummins Turbo Diesel (although the Cummins is an option on the 3500). The lineup offers all-new styling, improved aerodynamics, and is far roomier.
It’s in this sphere that the truckmaker is clearly going to be aggressive in the medium term. "Between our cab chassis lineup we just launched and what we plan to bring forward from whatever Fiat and Iveco have that we think fits well, we plan to grow our volume by 50 percent four years from now."
You’ve heard the proverb, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But it appears that the Romans don’t mind how things are done in Detroit either.
Pick Up Line: Once a popular pickup, the Dodge Dakota is on its way out. It’ll be replaced after next year, likely by a unibody. And, again, a Fiat and Iveco platform are very real possibilities (diesel, maybe?) to take over, although something in-house isn’t out of the question.
Whatever it is, Ram is looking to get back to basics with a smaller more fuel-efficient model.
Big Ram truck enthusiasts might raise an eyebrow at a unibody, but the Dakota in particular ran into problems when the recession hit the shrinking pickup segment.
Midway between a compact and full-size pickup, the Dakota found itself competing with the more capable (but not much more pricey) Ram 1500 half-ton when it increased in size but not capacity a few years ago.
With the latter being the better deal for truckers and smaller pickups more attractive to the average consumer, the Dakota was stuck in truck Limbo. "That truck is an absolute brute," says Ram Trucks President Fred Diaz.
"It’s a great truck. But we did overbuild that truck."
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