Volkswagen CEO says not ruling out merger talks with Fiat Chrysler

WOLFSBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE Chief Executive Matthias Mueller said he did not rule out he could hold merger talks with Fiat Chrysler FCHA.MI boss Sergio Marchionne, in a marked change of tone by the German carmaker toward its Italian-American peer.

German carmaker Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller addresses the company's annual news conference in Wolfsburg, Germany, March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

“I am not ruling out a conversation,” Mueller told journalists after VW’s annual results news conference.

Only last week, Mueller appeared to dismiss the prospect of talks with Fiat Chrysler (FCA), saying VW had enough on its plate as it struggled to overcome its emissions scandal and push a wide-ranging business transformation.

“We are not ready for talks about anything,” he had told Reuters on the sidelines of the Geneva auto show last week. “I haven’t seen Marchionne for months,” he had added.

Marchionne has long advocated car industry mergers to share the costs of making cleaner and more technologically advanced vehicles and has repeatedly relayed his desire via the media.

“It would be very helpful if Mr. Marchionne were to communicate his considerations to me too and not just to you,” Mueller said.

The purchase of General Motors' GM.N Opel division by PSA Group PEUP.PA leaves FCA in an increasingly difficult position in Europe.

The indebted group has a European market share of only about 7 percent, and its operating margin of 2.5 percent lags most rivals, as does its spending on cleaner and more autonomous cars.

Mueller declined to discuss whether the PSA-Opel deal could reinforce consolidation among carmakers in Europe and said VW would in any case press on with its strategic shift to embrace electric cars and automated driving.

“I am pretty confident about the future of Volkswagen, with or without Marchionne,” he said.

Reporting by Andreas Cremer; Editing by Edward Taylor and Maria Sheahan