Two automakers are looking relatively perky these days:  Fiat and Ford.  Fiat seems set to get a sweetheart deal on Chrysler, courtesy of the US government.  Until this week, most analysis has presented bankruptcy as an alternative to a Fiat deal; now it looks like a precursor.  The creditors get a deep haircut on their debt, the US government bails out the UAW retirees, and the taxpayers get . . . nothing, not even a complimentary hood ornament.

At least the UAW members vote.  I'm having a very hard time figuring out what Fiat has done to deserve this largesse:

Debt holders have expressed agitation about Fiat, itself weakened by the global recession. As designed, the Turin company would get 20% of the auto maker without putting a dollar of its own capital at risk. Fiat's main commitment to Chrysler would be to provide some technology and to share the guts, or "platforms," of certain models.

The U.S. government has already agreed to forgive the $4 billion it lent Chrysler and to inject another $6 billion into the auto maker to finance its possible bankruptcy and operations.

Most important to Chrysler's health, the government has negotiated a deal with the United Auto Workers union that should reduce the company's pension and health-care costs, lifting a burden off the company.

For the lenders, the fear is that Fiat doesn't have enough at stake in the negotiations, given it will likely assume day-to-day control of the company without putting up its own money.

Several lenders said their concern is Fiat will overcharge Chrysler for new technologies or parts, effectively stripping money out of Chrysler over time via technology-transfer agreements. It could also make in-kind equity contributions over time to build up its equity stake if it does decide Chrysler has a future.

The idea seems to be to keep Chrysler operating at all costs--at least until the current administration is safely out of office.

Meanwhile, the folks at Ford have to be awfully glad they didn't take government money.  They've apparently gotten quite a brand boost out of it, with a large number of their current customers trading in Chrysler or GM cars for a piece of the company that isn't teetering on the edge of receivership.  It's not that Ford's future is necessarily that bright--but taking billions from the government sends a strong signal that there might be a problem with your cars in the future.