DETROIT — Chrysler had its best quarterly profit in 13 years. Not bad for a company that almost died three years ago.
The company earned $473 million in the first quarter, mainly from strong U.S. sales, which rose 39 percent from January through March. Customers snapped up Ram pickups, Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs and Chrysler 200 sedans.
The profit was more than four times what Chrysler made a year earlier. And it was the best performance since the third quarter of 1998 when Chrysler earned $682 million during the pickup truck and SUV boom.
"I have no bad news to tell you," Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said Thursday, adding that trends for the rest of year look positive.
Another reason Chrysler made so much money is because it's generating more cash every time it sells a car or truck. It's getting an average of $29,234 per vehicle in the U.S., up almost 5 percent from last year, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing website. When sales and prices both rise, that generates more revenue and profit. Revenue for the quarter rose 25 percent to $16.4 billion.
It's a big change from 2009. The recession, which devastated auto sales, brought the company to the brink of financial ruin. Chrysler and its financing arm needed $12.5 billion from U.S. taxpayers to survive. When a government auto task force deadlocked on whether to save the collapsing company, the tie was broken by President Obama.
Then things turned around. Chrysler got the bailout, cut costs in bankruptcy and saw sales improve with the economy. It worked overtime to revamp 16 of its models to make them more appealing to consumers. Sales have increased steadily through 2011 and into 2012.
The company is optimistic about this year, repeating a forecast that it would make $1.5 billion in 2012. Total car and truck sales in the U.S. are running at an annual rate of 14 million so far. That would be a healthy increase over last year's 12.8 million. The average age of vehicles on roads is nearing 11 years, and pent-up demand is helping sales. Chrysler should share in the growth. Last year it raised its U.S. market share to 11.5 percent, from 9.4 percent a year earlier.
Chrysler also is about to launch the new Dodge Dart, its first competitive compact car since the bug-eyed Neon in the mid-1990s. A refreshed version of the Ram pickup, its top-selling vehicle, is coming later in the year.
Chrysler also was a big contributor to the earnings of its majority owner, Italian automaker Fiat SpA. Fiat's first-quarter profits more than tripled to $137 million due largely to Chrysler. Excluding Chrysler, Fiat's revenues fell 5.7 percent due to declining European auto sales.
Chrysler still faces risks. The company primarily does business in North America, so its fate is tied to the U.S. economy. Chrysler sold 523,000 vehicles globally during the quarter, but only 67,000 were outside North America.