In ten consecutive months, U.S. sales at the Fiat brand have declined on a year-over-year basis. The run of declines began six months after Fiat launched an all-new model, the 500X, in America’s burgeoning subcompact crossover segment. The downward trend continued in the third quarter of 2016, through the launch of the Mazda-based 124 Spider. The losses accrued in Fiat’s U.S. showrooms were certainly worsened by 21 consecutive months of decreased volume reported by the aging Fiat 500.
But it’s the 500X that ought to shoulder much of the blame. Wasn’t the answer to the brand’s lack of mainstream appeal surely to be found in a segment that doubled in size in 2015?
LIGHT AT THE START OF THE TUNNEL
It wasn’t always doom and gloom for the 500X. After a slow ramp-up, Fiat 500X sales peaked at 2,178 units in October 2015. That’s a relatively small number, to be sure. But Fiat sold more subcompact crossovers that month than Nissan, Mazda, and Mini, with the Juke, CX-3, and Countryman, respectively.Yet while segment-wide growth continued after the 500X first crested the 2K marker — year-over-year volume jumped 130 percent in November 2015 and 175 percent in December 2015 — the 500X’s forward momentum was abruptly halted.
By January of this year, Fiat was selling less than half as many 500Xs in America as the company had three months earlier. On a month-to-month basis, 500X sales decreased in November 2015 and then in seven of 2016’s first nine months, horrendous results for a recently launched model.SHELVES STOCKED
Inventories ballooned. Heading into the second-quarter, Fiat dealers had a 140-day supply of 500Xs in an industry that had 65 days of new vehicle inventory. Little changed heading into the third-quarter, with a 134-day supply of roughly 6,000 500Xs, according to Automotive News.
It was during that third quarter that the dearth of demand for the 500X became most apparent.
Fewer than 1,000 copies of the 500X were sold in July, a modest 12-unit year-over-year decline but the lowest total sales for the model since its first month on sale 13 months earlier.
August 500X volume slid 13 percent as subcompact crossover volume rose 5 percent.
In September, sales of the Fiat 500X tumbled to only 839 units, a 26-percent year-over-year drop and a 15-month low.COMPETITORS’ TAILLIGHTS
Remember that trio of vehicles the 500X had managed to outsell at its peak? Last month, the chronically uncommon Mazda CX-3 sold 80-percent more often than the 500X; the six-year-old Mini Countryman topped the 500X by nearly 200 units; and the Nissan Juke, at an all-time monthly low, outperformed the 500X by a 13-percent margin.
Meanwhile, the boxy Jeep Renegade that shares a platform with the curvy Fiat 500X is the top-selling member of a subcompact crossover category that’s grown by a third this year.
It’s a segment that grew 12 percent during the last quarter, a period in which Fiat 500X sales declined 14 percent. Over the last three months, the Fiat 500X’s direct competitors combined for nearly 15,000 additional sales compared with the same stretch one year earlier.
Yet the 500X, with little to lose, managed to drop 437 sales in the same time span.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
If Fiat USA can’t succeed where success is virtually automatic, what does the future hold for FCA’s namesake brand in the world’s second-largest automobile market? How does Fiat work its way back in a market where Fiat dealers are each selling an average of one vehicle every two days and fewer than five 500Xs per month?
With four models, Fiat is on track to 34,000 new vehicles in the United States in calendar year 2016, a 10,000-unit sales decline from 2012, when Fiat was a one-model brand in America.
[Images: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]