Fiat 500: Minicar provides mega drama

Laura Soave with Fiat 500

Fiat nominated Laura Soave to return the brand to the U.S. She has since left the company.

The return of Fiat to the U.S. marketplace began with so much optimism. Things, to be sure, weren’t as good as they might have been, with Chrysler working through its bankruptcy, the U.S. economy on the ropes and – if truth be told – a Fiat brand better known for what it was (and wasn’t) than what it is today. The good news: Fiat’s new alliance with Chrysler brought a completely fresh perspective via Fiat chairman Sergio Marchione and, as of early 2010, the appointment of Laura Soave as head of Fiat Brand North America.

With previous stops at both Ford and Volkswagen, Ms. Soave certainly had a background appropriate to the relaunch of the Fiat franchise. And as an intelligent, articulate and – let’s not underestimate this – photogenic face of the new Fiat, she supplied attention to the Fiat brand a graying, male Michigander might not have brought. While Ms. Soave and her team took several pages from the Mini Cooper playbook in planning Fiat’s return to the States, they would later find that Fiat is not Mini, and its host dealer network – Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge stores – wasn’t BMW.

Once plans for importation of Fiat’s 500 were finalized (in late 2010) there was but six months to put the plan into motion. And in that six months marketing needed to be finalized, dealerships appointed and showrooms built. These are tasks BMW/Mini spent some eighteen months to implement, and Fiat ultimately launched with far fewer planned dealerships. The challenges for Fiat were many, and while any number of examples could be found, two conversations stand out very clearly, both taking place earlier this year.

At the St. Louis auto show, the area Fiat dealer had no cars, no showroom and no signage. They did, however, have a card table and a hand-drawn sign identifying them as the new point of sale for Fiat in Missouri. To its credit, this was a multiline franchise with a number of imports under its corporate umbrella. But if there was an inauspicious way of introducing Fiat to a market area, the folks in St. Louis had found it.

Perhaps even more disconcerting was a conversation with a couple of product specialists at the Fort Worth Auto Show in late winter. Here Fiat had a 500 on display, but when asked where Fiats would be sold in North Texas the reps – at that point – had no idea. To do it properly, the appointment of dealers is a grueling process, requiring lengthy conversation, examination and negotiation. The schedule put forth by Chrysler was entirely too aggressive, and if Ms. Soave’s staff had the benefit of a dealer development team it wasn’t evident within that schedule – or in Fort Worth’s Convention Center.

The fact that Fiat will not only miss its initial target of 50,000 annual sales – and miss it by a mile – is attributed to the delay in finalizing retail points and getting those points open. You might also give credit to a brand that’s historically suspect, price points that are (at least in the eyes of many seasoned observers) probably $2,000 too high, and the one-note song played by a 2-door hatch with minimal horsepower and few options. To be sure, your Fiat can be personalized, but the platform itself affords little in the way of utility or adaptability. The 500 is a great third car, perhaps, but doesn’t provide much as a first or second set of wheels.

Finally, there was virtually no significant marketing during the ramp up, and while the nation’s automotive media was aggressively accessed, Fiat’s 500 was no Dodge Viper. The buzz generated by early previews and test drives was good, but little better than that afforded more pedestrian wheels from Japan, Korea or – for that matter – Michigan. And when it came time to make a big national splash, the car wasn’t the star; that role was filled by Jennifer Lopez playing either Jennifer Lopez or Celine Dion.

In the mind game of what-might-have-been, one could fill a book with the missteps. And while Ms. Soave’s appointment may have been fueled by a sort of reverse sexism – Chrysler’s take on Title IX – her departure and replacement would seem to reflect the company’s ultimate preference for graying males from the Midwest. There’s nothing new about that, but at least one observer will miss Soave’s passion and personality. And in a year of unfulfilled expectations, American enthusiasts may very well miss an engaging car, lacking only the corporate will to properly support it.