China’s Great Wall Motor is sizing up Fiat Chrysler, the Italian-American carmaker that also owns Jeep.
A Great Wall official told Reuters it had “an intention to acquire” some or all of the world’s seventh-largest car maker.
However, Fiat Chrysler said it was yet to receive an approach from Great Wall – China’s biggest SUV maker.
Earlier reports said the Chinese firm had asked to meet Fiat executives to discuss buying the Jeep brand.
Jeep, which celebrated its 75th birthday last year, is considered FCA’s most valuable asset.
Its reputation dates back to World War Two, when Jeeps were used extensively by the US military.
Shares in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles jumped 7.4% in New York on Monday and have jumped more than a quarter this year, valuing the company at just over $19bn (£14.7bn).
However, the Jeep brand alone could be worth as much as $27bn, according to Morgan Stanley analysts.
Analysis: Andrew Walker, economics correspondent
Are the alarm bells ringing in the White House? Possibly. Certainly President Trump has expressed concerns about China’s international economic role.
His former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, last week said the US is in an economic war with China. He is no longer at the President’s side, but his influence may well persist. There are others in the administration who share the same concerns about China, including the top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer.
Great Wall’s takeover of Fiat Chrysler – if it ever happens – might not have any immediate impact on jobs, as the Chinese company could decide to keep manufacturing in the US.
It probably wants Jeep’s technology and engineering, which is striking given that Mr Trump has ordered an investigation into allegations of China’s theft of US intellectual property. There is the potential for the takeover talk to add to the friction.
Jeep sold 1.4 million vehicles last year and aims to shift 2 million vehicles annually by 2018.
Great Wall sold just over 1 million vehicles last year – mostly in China, which is now the world’s largest car market.
Bill Russo, a former Chrysler executive now with Gao Feng Advisory Group, said he believed Great Wall wanted Jeep rather than all of FCA and its debts of about $4.9bn.
“Jeep is the crown jewel of Fiat Chrysler in terms of brand and equity,” he said.
Great Wall is known for its SUVs, vehicles, which are popular in China, so a deal would be “quite complementary”, Mr Russo added.
Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight, said: “Jeep is the most logical choice, since [Great Wall] wants to be the largest SUV maker in the world.
“The Jeep brand is recognised globally. I think Great Wall Motor is eyeing a global strategy, not just the United States.”
What is Great Wall Motor?
- Founded 1984, it is China’s largest SUV and pick-up truck maker
- Great Wall is vying with Geely to become the first Chinese carmaker to go global
- A bid could prove unpopular with US President Donald Trump, who is investigating Chinese trade practices and wants to protect US car manufacturing jobs
- Fiat Chrysler already makes some Jeep models in China, with local partner Guangzhou Automobile Group
- Fiat Chrysler could be too big a bite for Great Wall, which is worth about $16bn, although it does have state investors
- Great Wall’s boss, Wang Fengying, is the seventh most powerful woman in the Asia-Pacific according to a Fortune magazine list
Earlier this year, it officially launched a new premium SUV brand called Wei, which potentially could tap into the US market.
Fiat Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne is seeking a partner or buyer to help it manage rising costs, emissions regulations and the development of electric and self-driving cars.
FCA also owns Alfa Romeo, Maserati and RAM trucks.