Fiat says Italian plants strategy is showing 'positive' results

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MILAN (Reuters) -- The first results of Fiat's move to use its plants in Italy to focus on higher-margin brands and build vehicles for export around the world are encouraging, Fiat Chairman John Elkann and CEO Sergio Marchionne said,

In a letter sent to employees ahead of the holidays, the two executives said Fiat had initiated a series of investments that will continue in the months and years to come to deal with a weak car market in Europe, especially in Italy.

Fiat plans to use its underutilized Italian factories to produce Jeeps and other group brands for export, as it relies increasingly on overseas sales to offset flagging demand in recession-hit Italy and keep workers in their jobs.

"The first signs that come to us from the Maserati Giovanni Agnelli plant in Grugliasco (Italy) are very positive and encourage us to continue on this path," Elkann and Marchionne said in the letter.

The Grugliasco plant outside Turin, northern Italy, produces two Maserati models, the Quattroporte and the Ghibli.

The statement did not specify any investment figures. In the past Fiat has announced investments for some individual plants, but a new industrial plan outlining its overall spending strategy and models will be released in April.

The two executives said they still expect next year to be challenging. "We know that the market will continue to be difficult, but we believe we can achieve the goals that we have set for ourselves," they said.

In the past, Fiat has said it plans to break even in Europe by 2016.

Earlier this week, Alfredo Altavilla, Fiat's Europe chief, said the group would bring a "certain number" of new models to the market next year to take advantage of a recovery when it happens, but declined to specify a number.

The new models will include the already announced new Jeep and a new Fiat 500X, which could come in more than one version.

The company will also announce news about commercial vehicles, Altavilla said, but did not give details.

While the European car market is showing signs of a modest recovery, Fiat has been struggling due to the lack of new models and its focus on the middle market, which has lagged both the budget and luxury sectors.

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