Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Wednesday it earned a profit of $698.2 million (641 million euro) during the first quarter, a 34% gain compared with the same period a year ago, driven primarily by profits in Europe and gains by its Maserati brand.

The quarterly earnings, a record for the company since it was formed from the merger of Fiat and Chrysler, increased from $521 million (478 million euro) the automaker earned during the same period last year.

The slightly better than expected profits are a good sign for the automaker as it faces an increasingly difficult sales environment in the U.S. and is trying to achieve the goals set out in a five year plan in 2014.

Shares of the automaker’s stock rose 70 cents, or 6.6% to $11.24 per share in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Fiat Chrysler’s company’s global revenue increased 4% to $30.2 billion (27.7 billion euro) during the first quarter compared with $28.9 billion (26.6 billion euro) for the same period last year.

The automaker’s profits work out to 47 cents per share (43 cents euro), slightly ahead of analysts, who, on average, expected the company to earn 46 cents, per share (42 cents euro), according to MarketWatch.

In Europe, a market that is recovering after a recession and declining industry sales that lasted years, Fiat Chrysler’s pre-tax net income increased 85% to 193 million (178 million euro) compared with $105 million (96 million euro) for the same period last year.

In North American, the company’s pre-tax profits increased slightly to $1.35 billion (1.24 billion euro) compared with $1.3 billion (1.2 billion euro) for the same period last year.

Meanwhile, pre-tax profits soared 569% for the company’s Maserati brand to $116.5 million (107 million) from $17.4 million (16 million euro). Those profits were driven by the global launch of the Levante, Maserati’s first SUV.

Fiat Chrysler, like all automakers, continues to struggle in South America where its lost $21.8 (20 million euro) compared with profit of $12 million (11 million euro) for the same period last year.

During the first quarter of the year the automaker faced the costs of launching its all-new Jeep Compass, which was still in the early stages of reaching dealers during the quarter. It also discontinued its Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart cars last year, losing the benefit of those sales. The automaker’s U.S. sales fell about 7.3% to just over 510,000 vehicles during the first three months of the year, according to Kelley Blue Book.

After seven years of growth industry sales in the U.S. have reached a plateau and are starting to decline just as the automaker is hitting a slow period in new cars and trucks it is introducing.

Fiat Chrysler faced launch costs for its Jeep Compass as it ramped up production globally during the first quarter and should benefit from that launch more as the year goes on.

“The coming six months will be crucial for Fiat Chrysler,” David Kudla, CEO of Mainstay Capital Management, said in a research note. “They have got to take advantage of the still strong and profitable light truck segment in the U.S., particularly with Jeep. Competitors GM and Ford certainly are and doing so at FCA’s expense.”

The automaker also is now entering the final phase of an ambitious five-year plan that CEO Sergio Marchionne unveiled in 2014 that counts on the successful reintroduction of Alfa Romeo in the U.S. and on steep sales targets for Maserati and Jeep.

“While CEO Marchionne acknowledged at the Detroit Auto Show in January that there were only eight quarters to go as the company seeks to deliver its ambitious 2018 targets, we believe that (the first quarter) will be one of the toughest waypoints for FCA to pass,” George Galliers, analyst for Evercore ISI said in a report Tuesday.


Marchionne warned investors last month at the company’s annual meeting that the first quarter was going to be “difficult” but said the company’s first quarter performance will not impact expectations for the year.

“The first quarter was difficult, we had said it would have been the weakest of the year, but this doesn’t change the targets for this year nor for 2018,” Marchionne told reporters in Europe last month.

On Wednesday, the company reaffirmed its guidance for the year, saying it expects to earn a profit of $3.27 billion (3 billion euro) with sales in excess of $1.25 billion (115 billion euro).

Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely. Contact Eric D. Lawrence: Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.