2014 Fiat 500L. (Chrysler)

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Tesla vs. Chrysler: Who repaid loan first?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Tesla Motors’ recent announcement that it has paid back its U.S. government loan nine years early was met with congratulatory notes from the public and the Obama administration, but also set off another public spat for the brash California electric auto maker, this time with Chrysler.

Tesla’s assertion that it was the first and only U.S. company to fully pay back its U.S. government loan was met by a quick, emphatic rebuttal from Chrysler that it had repaid all the money it owed to the U.S. government in 2011.

“The information is unmistakably incorrect,” wrote Gualberto Ranieri, senior vice-president of corporate communications, on Chrysler’s corporate blog – on the evening of the Tesla repayment and related announcement. “It’s pretty well-known that almost exactly two years ago – May 24, 2011 – Chrysler Group LLC repaid, in full and with interest, U.S. and Canadian government loans more than six years ahead of schedule. Question: short memory or short-circuit?”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk countered the next morning via Twitter: a) Chrysler is now a division of Fiat, making it an Italian company, not a U.S. one; and b) Chrysler didn’t pay back $1.3-billion (U.S.) of the total funds it received, linking to a Detroit News article from earlier this year that detailed how $1.3-billion became associated with the “old” Chrysler, and how the U.S. Treasury did not expect those funds to be paid back.

“Apart (from) those two points, you were totally first,” tweeted Musk.

It’s a similar situation in Canada, with a $1.1-billion loan from the Ontario and Canadian government ending up with Old CarCo, the remnants of “old” Chrysler that went into bankruptcy in 2009, confirmed a Chrysler Canada spokesperson this week. A June 2009 loan made to Chrysler Canada for $1.6-billion was paid back in May 2011, with interest ($2-billion total), more than six years ahead of schedule. In July 2011, Fiat purchased the remaining ownership interest from the Canadian government for $125-million, according to the company.

However, a mid-May report by auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers found that the proportion of Chrysler’s North American production in Canada dropped from 33 per cent in 2008 to 24.7 per cent in 2012, with a rapidly increasing production share for southern U.S. states or lower-wage Mexico. Despite an additional $27.2-million investment in its Etobicoke stamping plant and major upgrades to all its Canadian-built cars since then, the benefits to Canadians of Chrysler’s revived financial health seems to be receding quickly.

That such a relatively small player as Tesla could provoke such a swift and indignant response by one of the former members of the previously dominant “Big Three” is noteworthy, since most companies are usually loathe to mention by name any other auto maker in its public statements. But luxury car rival Audi also did this when it put out an aggressive release entitled, “Not so fast to put Tesla on that particular pedestal,” pointing out that headlines suggesting Tesla outsold the major German luxury car heavyweights in the U.S. were erroneous, and that Audi sells many times more vehicles per month than does Tesla’s one-model lineup.

The Audi release seems to have been based on an erroneous belief that Tesla was reporting April sales when Tesla disclosed in early May that it had sold just more than 4,750 vehicles in the first quarter of 2013. Audi was perhaps sensitive over earlier reports that Tesla, starting just its first full year of Model S production, was already out-selling high-dollar rivals like the Audi A8, A7, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series. Audi’s PR “oops” has since been pulled from Audi’s American media site.

Fiat 500L mini-SUV here in June

Fiat dealers in Canada will finally have another model besides the cute and cheerful 500 two-door hatchback to offer buyers starting in June, when the 500L mini-SUV goes on sale across the country.

Its $19,995 starting price, five-passenger capacity and what should be a relatively frugal 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine puts it up against other city-friendly mini-utes like the Kia Soul and Nissan Juke. Putting out 160 hp from its MultiAir turbo engine, it offers a few high-end features as standard, including adjustable Koni front dampers and rear shocks, text message reader, as well as adjustable and reclining rear seats.

Chrysler also says that there will be free features offered as an introductory special on some trim levels higher than the base Pop model, with the one-up Sport model ($22,995) offering free Beats upgraded audio, with the top-line 500L Lounge ($25,995) including that same sound system as well as a sunroof for a limited time.

Chevy Spark EV will be fleet-only in Canada

The all-electric Chevrolet Spark plug-in won’t be sold to consumers in Canada after all, at least not at the same time it goes on sale next month in the U.S.

Chevy’s first battery-electric vehicle (BEV) will be available in June for fleet sales to Canadian businesses. GM Canada doesn’t make fleet pricing public. Although there was talk at a GM electric vehicle symposium last November that the Spark EV may be sold in limited markets in Canada, that hasn’t come to pass.

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