The New Iacocca: Chrysler CEO Marchionne Is Already Sorry He Opened His Mouth

Last Updated Feb 7, 2011 3:06 PM EST

Chrysler attracts the big personalities, doesn't it? Sergio Marchionne of Fiat (FIATY.PK) is an appropriately controversial successor to Lee Iacocca, who ran Chrysler from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

Maybe because of its perennial underdog status, Chrysler always seems to have the most colorful cast of characters among the Detroit automakers. The latest mini-controversy surrounding Marchionne is that he complained at an industry conference about the fact that Chrysler is saddled with "shyster" government loans, which are eating up the profits.

Marchionne was quick to apologize and to acknowledge that was a poor choice of words. No lie, considering those loans from the U.S and Canadian governments were the only thing that kept Chrysler in business following its bankruptcy in 2009. You could say that Fiat also rode to Chrysler's rescue, but that wouldn't have happened absent the loans, either.

"Yesterday, in responding to a question about Chrysler's government loans, I used a term in reference to the interest rate being charged on our government loans that has raised concern. I regret the remark which I consider inappropriate," Marchionne said in a written statement on Saturday.

Chrysler seems to bring out the color in otherwise buttoned-down executives. Even Mercedes-Benz (DDAIF.PK) boss Dieter Zetsche, who ran Chrysler when it was part of DaimlerChrysler, managed to be colorful and quotable during his time at Chrysler. Bob Lutz was another famously outspoken Chrysler executive, before he switched to General Motors (GM).

But it was Iacocca who set the tone for Chrysler as the cocky underdog. "If you can find a better car, buy it," he blustered in commercials. Iacocca also turned necessity into a virtue and made a big deal out of repaying government loan guarantees that kept the company afloat in the late 1970s. People remembered Iacocca repaying the loans and forgot why Chrysler needed the bailout in the first place.

We like our underdogs to be cocky, just not too cocky. For Marchionne to complain about the interest payments on Chrysler's life-support loans was a little too much chutzpah.

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