Arts, Culture & Media

Italian Fiat Micro-Cars Hit the American Road

Player utilities

Listen to the story.


The Fiat 500 (Photo: Rudolf Stricker/Wikipedia)

Fiat, the controlling partner of Chrysler, has introduced something of a micro-car, called the Fiat 500. It's a re-introduction of an old popular Italian classic, just like the rebirth a few year's back of the British Mini-Cooper.

The car is getting mixed reviews from the experts, though most admit the Jennifer Lopez commercials are top notch.

Think back, if you will. How many of you remember the introduction of the Fiat Brava in the 1980"²s?
European Luxury Gone Wrong

The ads promised "an impressive list of standard features." And, "luxury that is uniquely European."

You'd think selling a classy Italian car to Americans would have been a slam dunk. After all, Italy is the land of "La Dolce Vita," Sophia Loren, Gucci and Versace.

But that's what we think now. In the 1980's, said Brian Kelly, it was a different story.

"They had some quality issues and they had some styling issues and the Japanese were coming on very strongly, and they were tough competition," Kelly said.
"Studios" Not Dealerships

Kelly said this time around the Fiat 500 — the cinquecento, as it's known in Italy — will catch on.

Kelly, who operates a handful of car dealerships in Massachusetts under his name, opened the first Fiat "studio" in the state last March.

"Everybody is into Italian styling today, whether it's shoes, handbags. The Fiat's like a Gucci handbag or a nice pair of shoes. If you sat in one and you drove one, you'd know exactly what we're talking about," he said.

So we did.

Salesman Sean Cheller put us in a Fiat 500 Sport, prima edizione. It was one of the first 500 Fiats imported to the US. In fact, we drove number 47.

The car comes in three models — there's "pop," "sport" and "lounge" — sounding much like a trip to Starbucks. There are 14 different colors and personalized chrome flourishes and decals — like flowers and butterflies. And even more options for the interior.

So, the Cinquecento isn't cookie-cutter. It's kinda fun to drive. But, will a tiny vehicle that looks sort of like an egg on wheels finally be the Italian car that takes the US market by storm?
Americans Won't Drive Small Cars

Bill Griffith writes about cars for the Boston Globe. He said it's highly unlikely that the Fiat 500 will ever be much of a player in the American market.

"These cars in a good year are selling 50,000 to 60,000 units. And Ford is selling 450,000 F-150 pickups," he said.

And Griffith said the gimmick with the showrooms — the "studios" — could hurt sales. Fiat controls Chrysler, so Griffith said the 500 should be sold in Chrysler dealerships. Otherwise, you miss the impulse buyers who might initially be looking for another car — or who don't know the Fiat 500 exists.

Even so, he said, Fiat could still do pretty well with the 500 in a niche market.

"They've sold, I'm not sure how many million of them worldwide; it's been proven reliable on an international scale; it's got the cute factor; and it's been a great attention-getter, and that's the way they've marketed it, with J-Lo and so on."

Jennifer Lopez is no Sophia Loren, of course, but she does garner some amount of publicity.

But the 500 isn't just cute and Italian and marketed by a sexy American singer: Coming soon, 160 horsepower in a car about the size of a bathtub.

And that's just the beginning. A Fiat USA spokesman confirmed that there are plans to bring the Alfa Romeo to the North American market sometime soon.

In Arts, Culture & MediaBusiness, Economics and JobsDevelopment & Education.

Tagged: ItalyUnited StatesNorth AmericaEuropehistorytradetransportationcelebrities.