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Will the new Fiat Strada play a role in Ram's future?

2012 Fiat Strada

2012 Fiat Strada (Credit: Handout)

Fiat is shaking things up in the global car (and car-based truck) markets, and that could tell us something about what's going to happen here in the U.S.

Fiat has a good deal of experience using car-based platforms to make a small, hard-working truck out of them. The 2012 Strada seen here is based off a smaller front-wheel-drive global car, called the Palio. The Strada has been quite popular in South America. In fact, it's been so popular there that Fiat decided to sell the little runabout in Europe.

Although relatively short at just over 14 feet long, the Strada will come in three cab configurations and corresponding bed lengths. Regular cab models will have 66-inch beds; extended cabs will have 52-inch beds; and crew-cab models will have a smallish 42-inch bed. These numbers may sound tiny, but Fiat has modified the suspension to give the little sport truck between 1,300 and 1,600 pounds of payload capacity -- certainly respectable.

The Strada will be sold in Europe with a Multijet 1.3-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine that is reported to get about 45 mpg in combined (city and highway) fuel economy testing. Don't expect this to be a speed demon: Preliminary engine output is said to be about 100 horsepower with close to 150 pounds-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm.

Apparently, the Strada is already a strong seller among younger buyers. It will come in three option packages: Working, Trekking and Adventure. All-wheel drive is available.

Moving from the Strada, it looks like Fiat again is interested in creating something capable and interesting from a pre-existing platform. But judging from some early spy shots of the upcoming small Jeeps -- reports have a new Compass, Patriot and Liberty based off the sporty Alfa Romeo Giuletta front-wheel-drive platform shown here -- it looks like Fiat may be stretching a bit, trying to use a sporty car platform for something that should probably be a little more rugged.

Still, if all Jeep needs is a dirt-road rally-type performer, an all-wheel-drive Italian platform with much better ground clearance may be good enough for that entry-level segment. But if this strategy goes much bigger, we're going to have some reservations.

Rumors have been swirling about a "less traditional" Ram pickup truck getting ready to debut in the next few years as the Dodge Dakota replacement. Certainly, as Jeep continues to play with a the idea of a pickup truck in the 2014-15 time frame, it would make sense Ram would want something new and different as well, especially in a segment where it needs to exist. Certainly, the U.S. market is ready for something new in the midsize segment, and so could be the world market as well.

It's not a stretch to assume that in the same way Fiat "evolved" a car-based vehicle to make the Strada -- and is now stretching and pulling an Alfa Romeo to make a few Jeeps -- that the company might take an existing (and quite successful) fully independent, air-suspended, larger platform like the one used in the Dodge Durango and try to stretch and pull that a little bit more to make a softer-riding, more family-friendly sport-utility truck for the U.S.

Can the folks at Fiat do it? It sure seems like they've gotten the formula down. But will they be smart enough about this quiet (almost hibernating) segment and offer enough real capability and never-before-seen technologies and clever bed solutions? We haven't seen that yet.

Of course, nobody will argue that a company taking risks with new products like Chrysler is doing should absolutely be as efficient and intelligent about every cost decision it makes. We know they have to. Unfortunately, what we're not as sure about is whether there are still people at Jeep and at Ram who are willing and able to fight on behalf of those of us who want capability and function first.

If the new Dakota looks and runs like a Strada, that will tell most of us all we need to know.

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