By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Chrysler Group LLC reported its third consecutive quarterly profit and logged its best financial performance in more than a decade, a turbulent period of changing owners with varied business strategies for the Detroit automaker.
Chrysler said it posted net income of $473 million for the first quarter of 2012, up more than 300 percent from $116 million a year ago. The company said the gains were driven primarily by a 40 percent increase in U.S. retail sales.
It was the company’s highest quarterly profit since it emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.
“Another positive quarter — built on sales gains that have surpassed the industry average — is affirmation that the Chrysler team is maintaining its focus,” said Sergio Marchionne, who is chief executive of both Chrysler and Italian automaker Fiat SpA.
Fiat has a controlling interest in Chrysler and the companies are working together to develop and sell vehicles.
Later this year, Chrysler will introduce a new generation Dodge Dart. Jointly developed with Fiat, the Dart is targeted at the small to midsize family car market, one of the biggest segments of the industry and an area where Chrysler has lacked a strong entrant.
Revenue for the quarter rose 25 percent to $16.4 billion. Chrysler said the sales increase was helped by rising car prices.
If there was a weakness in Chrysler’s financial results, it was that about 30 percent of Chrysler’s sales were to fleet customers, such as rental car companies and government agencies. The retail end of the market — sales to consumers — is often a better indicator of an automaker’s financial prospects, according to industry analysts.
Toyota and Honda, by comparison, generally limit their fleet business to about 10 percent of total U.S. sales.
Nonetheless, Chrysler has improved its competitive position since emerging from bankruptcy, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with auto price information company TrueCar.com.
“Chrysler gained 2 full percentage points of U.S. market share compared to a year ago, while increasing their transaction prices and lowering inventory turn times significantly — all resulting in a much-improved bottom line,” Toprak said. “They should still get full credit for having the most desirable lineup of vehicles that they have ever had in their showrooms.”
Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz, purchased Chrysler in 1998 but was unable to integrate the American company into its global operations profitably, and it sold the company to Cerberus Capital Management in 2007. Cerberus quickly ran into problems and lost control of the business during the 2009 bankruptcy reorganization and federal government bailout.
Other automakers also are reporting big profit gains. Hyundai, helped by strong sales in the U.S. offsetting sluggish business in Europ