Considering if diesel investigations impact FCA significantly

CARY, N.C. - 

Volkswagen absorbed significant monetary and reputation hits following controversy about emissions levels thrown by some of its diesel models. Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez considered the possibility Fiat Chrysler might face the same level of challenges since the automaker acknowledged it’s being investigated for a similar scenario.

Included in the automaker’s latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Fiat Chrysler admitted to receiving a variety of actions by state and federal regulators as well as civil matters.

The automaker said that on Jan. 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) each issued a notice of violation (NOV) alleging that FCA failed to disclose certain emissions control strategies in its application for certificates to permit the sale of model year 2014 through 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 diesel vehicles. The OEM indicated approximately 104,000 of these vehicles were sold in the United States, of which approximately 14,000 were retailed in California.

The filing also noted that the NOVs also state that the EPA and CARB are continuing to investigate whether any of these emissions control strategies are properly justified under the applicable regulations or constitute a “defeat device” as defined in the Clean Air Act.

“Following the issuance of the NOVs, a number of civil lawsuits have been filed,” Fiat Chrysler said in the filing. “We have also received various inquiries, subpoenas and requests for information from a number of governmental authorities, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the SEC and several states’ attorneys general.

“We are investigating these matters and we intend to cooperate with all valid governmental requests,” the automaker continued. We are currently unable to predict the outcome of any proceeding or investigation arising out of the NOVs or any related proceedings or investigation nor can we estimate a range of reasonably possible losses for the lawsuits and investigations because these matters involve significant uncertainties at these stages.

“Such investigations could result in the imposition of damages, fines or civil and criminal penalties,” Fiat Chrysler went on to say. “It is possible that the resolution of these matters may adversely affect our reputation with consumers, which may negatively impact demand for our vehicles and could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.”

In light of those acknowledgements, Gutierrez tackled what he called a “fair question” about whether Fiat Chrysler was heading down a difficult road that VW continues to navigate. He spoke when KBB and Autotrader conducted its monthly call with the media this past Wednesday.

“What we’ve seen in the past with these sorts of probes — if you look at VW for instance or you look at Toyota when they were being investigated for unintended acceleration — what we find is when there is a high-profile investigation or a crackdown on a manufacturer for one reason or another, unless it’s prolonged and sustained and you end up where there is a stop-sale put in place, again similar to what happened with VW with respect to their diesels and with Toyota when they voluntarily withheld sales of a few models while that was all being sorted out, unless you have that sort of scenario, you don’t see a pronounced and significant impact to overall sales volume,” Gutierrez said.

“I think consumers at the end of the day are still weighing the cost-benefit analysis of what they’re receiving in terms of value of the vehicle they’re purchasing versus the normal substitutes,” he continued. “If the price is right — and we know there are ample incentives available on a number of Chrysler products — the investigation alone will likely not be enough to influence consumer preferences and ultimately shopping behavior, again unless some sort of a stop-sale is put in place.”

Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs added that she agreed with Gutierrez’s assessment. Krebs mentioned one other component involving Fiat Chrysler that might be important to its used-vehicle business, as well.

“Fiat Chrysler is finally doing what General Motors and Ford already have done and that’s taking down some of the numbers in the lower, less-profitable fleet sales,” said Krebs, while adding that February marked the second consecutive month of double-digit new-car sales declines for the OEM.

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