NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Chrysler LLC is “alive and well” investing in new products, bracing for slow sales and looking to incentives to help the struggling automaker sell its way out of the economic doldrums, President and Vice Chairman Jim Press said Friday.

The days of easy credit are over, and 2009 is about facing financial realities, he said.

“Our company’s scrappy. A number of times in the past, people sort of wondered what Chrysler was going to do or not do,” he told analysts, dealers and others at a J.D. Power and Associates roundtable in New Orleans. “I can tell you, one thing we’re going to do, and that’s we’re going to make it through this. And we’re going to emerge in a very strong, positive way. We don’t just have a viability plan; we have a plan for prosperity.”

Press said he expects things to come together around March 31, when Chrysler will have to prove its viability to hold on to $4 billion in loans from the federal government and get another $3 billion it is seeking. Press said he was confident Chrysler could make its case and the company shouldn’t need more bailout money from the government.

He said the government’s viability conditions are in line with what the company must prove as part a proposed agreement with Fiat Group SpA to help Chrysler bring badly needed small cars to its showrooms and help Fiat re-enter the U.S. market.

Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler has been hurt by its reliance upon slow-selling trucks and sport utility vehicles, and analysts have said it probably won’t survive the year as an independent company.

If the government aid or the Fiat deal falls through, Press said he’s not sure what that will mean for Chrysler.

The Fiat deal would give the Italian company a 35 percent stake in Chrysler without having to contribute any cash.

If the deal is completed, Press said he did not anticipate a change in Chrysler’s management. He didn’t say whether Fiat cars would be rebranded when they hit U.S. showrooms, something he said was possible within two years. All options are open, he said.

Besides the $7 billion bailout, Chrysler’s financial arm also received a $1.5 billion loan from the Treasury Department last week that let Chrysler start offering zero-percent loans and expand the number of buyers who will qualify for financing. The company added other incentives Thursday including additional rebates and employee pricing for the general public.

Press said the company hopes the incentives will help dealers move inventory and help Chrysler sell its way out of its situation.

Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc., said to improve the industry’s outlook, access to credit must normalize, the government must launch a massive economic stimulus plan, and General Motors Corp. and Chrysler must get the rest of the federal loans they have sought.

It’s tough to even get “prime” customers into cars anymore, let alone people with less than stellar credit, said Jackson, whose Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company is the largest auto retailer in the U.S., representing both U.S. and foreign automakers.

In December 2007, GM’s finance arm, GMAC LLC, financed more than 1,500 contracts for AutoNation customers, Jackson said. That slipped to nine in December 2008. Approvals through Chrysler’s financial arm fell from more than 800 to just over 20, he said.

The exception was with Ford Motor Co.’s financial arm, where numbers slipped some, but not nearly as significantly, Jackson said.

Chrysler Financial said the loan it received from Treasury will allow it to provide more customers with affordable financing, including those with lower credit scores.

GMAC, which received $5 billion from the Treasury Department in late December, also said the money would allow it to loosen the lending standards it tightened during the credit crunch.

Chrysler has no new products going on sale this year, but Press said eight new products will launch in the next 18 months and 24 new models will reach showrooms in the next four years. None of the eight will be Fiat products, he said; some thereafter could be.

Chrysler’s alliance with Fiat will contribute engineering experience and technology in an arrangement almost unheard of in the competitive auto industry, Press said. It also will preserve jobs, accelerate delivery of high fuel-efficient cars to the market and help stabilize the U.S. car industry, Press said.

“That’s not a bad thing,” he told reporters. “That’s a good thing, right?”

Meanwhile, Chrysler Financial said Friday that it would ease some recently enforced terms that forced dealers to pay off large portions of loans used to finance new and used vehicles sitting on their lots for more than a year.

Dealers had complained that the repayments would be especially painful at a time when U.S. auto sales are at a 26-year low.

“Working with our Dealer Advisory Council we developed a new program that recognizes the realities of today’s market and provides a solution that helps ease the financial burden on our dealers at this time,” Chrysler Financial CEO Tom Gilman said in a statement.


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