CHICAGO – Trucks account for 60 percent of Chrysler LLC’s sales in the U.S., a market that’s fleeing those vehicles, while it has only a small presence internationally, where most auto industry growth is happening.

And it’s run by a group of financiers, generally not known for hanging in for the long haul.

One year after private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management acquired Chrysler from Daimler AG, the smallest of Detroit’s Big 3 faces an uphill climb.

“They’re in a worse position compared to General Motors and Ford,” said analyst Aaron Bragman of industry forecaster Global Insight. “Their strengths are in pickups and minivans, segments that are shrinking dramatically. In order to survive, they will have to flesh out their lineup with entries from other automakers.”

The latest indication that Chrysler will take that route came this week in reports of talks with Nissan to build a midsize car, possibly a version of the popular Altima, as buyers’ tastes head in that direction.

Though Chrysler isn’t required to report financial results like General Motors or Ford, which lost bundles in the second quarter, financial results from Daimler AG, which retains a 20 percent interest in Chrysler, indicate the U.S. automaker lost about $400 million in the first quarter.

Still, Chrysler maintains it is on solid footing and said Aug. 1 that it had earnings of $1.1 billion in the first half of the year before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization and restructuring costs, plus $9.4 billion of unrestricted cash, ahead of internal targets on both counts.

“We’d like to be judged as a company on how well we do when we’re under pressure,” co-President Jim Press told reporters recently. “The hardest steel comes from the hottest fire.”

Bragman dismisses that as “a sound bite to get potential buyers interested,” noting that the cost of cutting jobs and eliminating factory shifts could wipe out any such operating profit.

But former Wall Street analyst Joe Phillippi, now principal of consulting firm AutoTrends, doubts Cerberus Capital Management, which picked up about 80 percent of Chrysler in a deal announced in May 2007, would bail this soon.

“They’re going to need a complete revamp of their car portfolio over the next three to five years, and they’re going to have to do it with a partner,” Phillippi said, adding Cerberus has no time to go it alone.

Moody’s Investors Services singled out Chrysler Thursday, lowering the automaker’s credit rating one notch below GM and Ford. GM’s rating is under review by Moody’s for a possible downgrade

Chrysler appears to have enough cash for the next 12 months, Moody’s Senior Vice President Bruce Clark said, but a dearth of small cars means “the long-term viability of the company’s business model could be undermined” despite ongoing cost-cutting measures.

Aaron Ziegler, president of the Ziegler Automotive Group, which has Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealerships in Illinois and Michigan, is somewhat more optimistic. He plans to break ground within three months on a larger store in Schaumburg, Ill. He also is shopping for more Chrysler franchises.

“I actually think it’s a good time to look at buying Chrysler stores because the prices are down,” he said. “I’ve heard all the rumors, but if you talk to people inside Chrysler, they say they’re hitting their targets, and they’ve taken a lot of cost out of the company.”

What he wants most is a small car with good mileage, but that won’t come until 2010, when a Nissan-built car is due.

Chrysler’s smallest models are the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass and Patriot, compact crossovers built in Belvidere, Ill. Combined sales of the three are up 15 percent this year, but none gets more than 29 miles per gallon highway at a time when 30 is the magic number.

With no small cars in its own pipeline, Chrysler made a deal in April to buy them, reportedly a version of the Nissan March. In exchange, Chrysler will supply full-size pickups to Nissan starting in 2011.

Buying cars from Nissan likely would improve Chrysler’s ratings from influential Consumer Reports magazine, which tend to turn off buyers, said Jack Fitzgerald, a multiline dealer who has Chrysler franchises in Maryland and Florida. Fitzgerald also thinks buyers will be turned off by Chinese cars, a reference to Chrysler’s agreement to obtain small cars from Chery Automobile Co., though no arrival date has been announced.

More such deals may be in the works. Bragman said Chrysler is talking to Italian manufacturer Fiat, which plans to return to the U.S. market and could be interested in one of Chrysler’s North American plants.

Ultimately, Chrysler could end up acquiring all or most of its cars from partners and develop only trucks and minivans, Bragman added.

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