DETROIT — For years, as China emerged as the world’s largest producer of automobiles, American car companies have wondered when a Chinese manufacturer would try to enter the U.S. market.
Now they have an answer: 2019.
At the Detroit auto show on Monday, officials of GAC Motor, based in Guangzhou, outlined a broad plan to build up its operations in the United States and begin selling a vehicle here next year, possibly in partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
GAC also expects to open a development center in Michigan and a design center in Los Angeles in the first half of this year, the executives said. The company had already established a technology lab in Silicon Valley last year.
“We intend to gain a foothold in the U.S.,” Yu Jun, GAC Motor’s president, said at a news conference. “If we can make it in the U.S., we can make it anywhere and enhance further possibilities of future growth.”
GAC — which sold about 500,000 vehicles last year and markets several models under the name Trumpchi — is considering selling its car through dealerships tied to Fiat Chrysler. The two companies are already partners in China, where GAC manufactures Jeeps for the Italian-American automaker.
“In the first half of this year, we will establish a North American sales company that will be responsible for developing the dealership network,” Jun said. “We will explore all sorts of channels including partnering with FCA as well as others.”
Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler’s chief executive, said his company was ready to assist GAC. “We are talking to them about how and if we can help if they come to the U.S.,” Marchionne told reporters at his own news conference earlier in the day.
The potential for cooperation in the United States is sure to fuel further speculation about whether the two companies will move toward an even closer alliance. Fiat Chrysler has been in discussions with a number of Chinese companies about potential equity investments, a prospect that took on greater significance after Marchionne tried and failed to persuade General Motors to consider merging with his company in 2015.
Marchionne has said he hopes to merge or partner with another automaker to improve Fiat Chrysler’s long-term prospects as technology and new global markets reshape the industry. While the company is profitable, it has not earned enough to make significant investments in the kind of technologies that appear crucial to the future of the industry, such as electric vehicles and self-driving cars.
Whether or not his company enters a partnership with GAC or another company, Marchionne will probably not be around to see if it pays off. During his news conference, he confirmed that this will be his last year running Fiat Chrysler.
He began as the chief executive of Fiat in 2004 and under his direction the company took control of Chrysler just as it was undergoing a wrenching bankruptcy reorganization engineered by regulators in Washington in 2009.
Marchionne said his successor will be named sometime after March, when Fiat Chrysler officials are expected to present a new business plan that will serve as a road map to guide the company’s operations through 2022. Two internal candidates, Richard Palmer, the chief financial officer, and Mike Manley, head of the highly profitable Jeep and Ram brands, are expected to be among the top contenders.
Marchionne said that Fiat Chrysler “has no intention” of breaking up the company and selling Jeep or Ram. “The answer is no,” he said.
But a partnership to sell GAC cars in the United States could make sense. Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge and Chrysler brands no longer offer small or midsize cars, having dropped them from their lineups in 2016. Dealers selling Fiat-brand small cars, meanwhile, are desperate for additional models to offer. Many Fiat dealers sell only a handful of new cars each month and do most of their business in a variety of used models.
“Fiat has limited potential in the U.S.,” Marchionne acknowledged.
Furthermore, Fiat Chrysler does not have an electric car in its lineup and Marchionne opposes the idea of investing the money to develop one.
“I don’t know of any organization making money on electric vehicles,” he said. Hybrids and electric cars together make up only 3 percent of all new cars sold in the United States, he noted. “That is not a good economic basis in which to do any type of investment.”
Some dealers, however, said they saw a need for Fiat Chrysler to get back into the midsize car segment and offer at least one electric model.
“It may be a shrinking segment but I still have customers who want cars,” said Wesley Lutz, owner of Extreme Dodge in Jackson, Michigan. “And it would be nice to at least have one hybrid and electric vehicle because you do have those green customers out there.”
The first model GAC plans to offer in the United States is a sport-utility vehicle called the GS8. The engineering center that GAC plans to build in or near Detroit would help design two additional models that the company plans to introduce in America, Jun said.
Two models that GAC showed off in Detroit were making their only stateside appearance. A small car, called the GA4, and a concept for an all-electric SUV called the Enverge that Jun said has a 370-mile range, do not figure in the company’s U.S. plans.