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It's a new Chrysler, but older problems still loom

DETROIT — Chrysler was reborn Wednesday under a new Italian parent, but it can't shake the shadows of its past: It's not selling enough cars, its fleet is tilted to trucks and SUVs, and help is more than a year away.

A 42-day stay in bankruptcy court cleansed the company of much of its debt and labor costs, but many analysts say Chrysler's immediate future is bleak. It lost $8 billion in 2008, and sales are down by almost half for the first five months of this year.

Cars designed by its new owner, Italy's Fiat Group SpA, won't make it to the U.S. until late 2010. And even then there are no guarantees American drivers will want the tiny cars Fiat specializes in.

In the meantime, Chrysler is left with few new vehicles headed to its drastically reduced network of dealers. Its aging model lineup still is heavy with bigger vehicles. And its offerings in the growing small and midsize markets haven't caught on.

"The showroom is not going to look terribly different over the next 18 months," said Aaron Bragman, an analyst for the consulting firm IHS Global Insight. "They're going to try and maintain market share in a down market with products, many of which haven't been redesigned in several years."

Bragman said Chrysler faces tremendous competition, especially from new cars in the works at General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.

Even if the new Chrysler Group LLC can survive, the super-small Fiat cars that were popular in Europe, like the 500 and Grand Punto, could be out of step with Americans who like bigger cars and are used to lower gas prices.

The new Chrysler began operations Wednesday morning after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of lower court decisions that allowed the transfer of most of the old Chrysler's assets to Fiat.