DETROIT - While its hometown rivals struggle to regain momentum, Chrysler is accelerating its unlikely product revival.
The smallest of the American automakers kicked off the annual Detroit auto show on Monday with new versions of two Jeep models, the Grand Cherokee and Compass, that have helped turn the company around since its government bailout and bankruptcy in 2009.
Chrysler outperformed the industry last year with a 20.6 percent increase in domestic sales in a market that grew by 13.4 percent. By comparison, sales increased just 3.7 percent at General Motors and 4.7 percent at Ford.
Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of both Chrysler and its Italian parent Fiat, said Monday that he expects Chrysler's upward sales trend to continue this year, particularly in pickup trucks and SUVs.
"I think there's a general feeling that the U.S. market is in healthy shape," Marchionne said. "And we're certainly going to improve in the market."
Last year was a stellar one for Chrysler. Its bread-and-butter products like the Grand Cherokee and the Ram pickup had big gains, and new cars like the Dodge Dart began to mitigate the company's traditional reliance on larger vehicles.
Now Marchionne is laying plans to build an entry-level Jeep at an underutilized Fiat plant in Italy -- evidence of how the U.S. company is shepherding its European parent company through difficult times.
Chrysler is the big dog
Sales of Chrysler products now account for more than 60 percent of the total vehicles sold under the Fiat corporate umbrella, which also includes brands like Alfa Romeo and Maserati.
When Marchionne negotiated Fiat's acquisition of Chrysler during its federal bailout, industry executives were skeptical the U.S. company could thrive after the failures of its previous owners, German carmaker Daimler and the private-equity firm Cerberus.
Now, however, "it's not Fiat saving Chrysler, it's Chrysler saving Fiat," said David Cole, a founder of the Center for Automotive Research.
Marchionne said a key part of Chrysler's growth will come from its iconic Jeep brand. On Monday the company showed off the first diesel-engine version of the Grand Cherokee, which officials said could get 30 mpg in highway driving.
A new version of the Jeep Liberty is to be introduced this year and will be built alongside a Fiat model in the Italian plant.
The plan helps solve Fiat's glaring overcapacity issues in Europe, where vehicle sales have dropped to their lowest level in years. It also represents an aggressive step to grow the Jeep brand outside the United States.