By on May 5, 2009

For all the “Inside Baseball” we play around here, we never forget that this is a car website. And the immediate reason Chrysler has gone under is because its products have been consistently sub-par for several cycles now. With that in mind, we can dissect the financial details of Chrysler’s alliance with Fiat all we like, but if it doesn’t produce products that sell, it goes nowhere. Car and Driver‘s analysis of Chrysler’s plan (PDF) shows that Chrysler has nothing besides a tarted-up “new” 300C and EV vapor in its new-car pipeline. Which means Fiat’s going to have to step up, big style. But are Fiat’s products up to the challenge of overcoming Chrysler’s brand baggage? And will they translate into the US market success that Chrysler needs to pay off its taxpayer loans?

Our own Fiat review archives are stocked with one Panda 4×4 (“2011 Jeep A Segment”, per C&D), one Grande Punto (2011 “B Segment Hatch”),  and an Alfa 147 (ha ha, you wish) review, which ain’t bad. While we wait for our man on the continent to update us on the now-relevant Italian whips, we went looking for thoughts on Fiat product on the internet . . . and you’ll never guess what we found.

The first stop for anyone who wants to know about cars that aren’t sold in the US is Jeremy Clarkson at The Times. The man drives just about everything, and there’s no need for Google Translate! And who could ask for more than Clarkson on the Bravo aka Sebring/Avenger 2.0? “To buy this car you must decide that what you really want is something that’s not quite as good as a Golf,” pans Clarkson towards the end. And that’s about it. Crappy but loveable. To wit:

There’s a looseness to the controls that you may interpret as poor build quality or a slackness in the system, and I’d be the first to agree that the steering’s not that great and the handling isn’t especially noteworthy. However, somehow, it puts a smile on your face. Maybe it’s because it feels so very, very different to a taut and muscular Volkswagen.

He loves the styling, which definitely wins the coveted “better than a Sebring” award.

Inside, it’s pretty much the same as all the other cars in the world, except for one thing. I could never quite get comfortable. Italian cars always used to be designed for creatures that are only found under rocks in the sea, and while they’ve got better, they still refuse to accept that a human being’s legs are usually longer than his arms.

Oh dear. On second thought, maybe Clarkson isn’t the first place to go. Even Top Gear’s freebee mini “review” is more helpful.

But what do our underwater friends, the Italians, say about the cars that must win America’s heart to repay the tax bill? To answer this question we must turn to the funniest place on the internet, Google Translate. Unfortunately, Italian reviews tend to sport a distinctly chauvinist streak. gushes:

What we are living today, is the arrival of another new “queen” for this Italian car constructor from Turin. The new Fiat Bravo has caught everybody’s attention for months, making all experts, dealers and competitors wonder about it. In a short time New Fiat Bravo has already become such a desirable car, like Fiat 500 did in the past. This is a very important result for Fiat, because it represents the concrete its re-birth: Fiat is now ready again to challenge international competitors.

In the Bravo, Infomotori “taste some brave maneuver,” and basically finds nothing lacking. Even a long-term test for Yahoo! Italy (also by Infomotori) suggests “Are you comfortable in five, with no particular Behavior and the line sportiveggiante not minimally affects the input board. A pleasant atmosphere, as we said, free of obvious flaws and drops coarse style.”

One reviewer for gets a little too excited about the diminutive 500, and how it “officially enshrines the awakening of ‘Fiat mother’ by a long agony, the approach to a new life.” He has to remind his readers:

“We must not forget that the 500 is also an industrial product, a car in the banal sense of the word: a machine. And as such, has to with the market and competition. The premise, as it often was for Fiat cars from the past, there are. Mechanics, in no uncertain terms derived from that of ‘Panda excellent, very good promising talents of efficiency and reliability, supported by the merits of the establishment of Tichy: The best of Fiat factories and capable of a quality which, if it is not Japanese, they pretty close.” is a little more even-handed. Though they call the 500 “Funny How A Kart,” they caution overeager fashionistas “we must never forget that – refinement of design or not – we are always at the wheel of a car segment A. Segment where the noise often reigns supreme in modern cockpits apparently.” But analysis inevitably swings back towards the nationalist pissing match with the Germans already in progress:

“The kilometers go by and the only possible explanation for this dynamic is that suspensions are beautiful duretta. We go in search of a pavé or uneven ground beautiful, but nothing: the 500 digests scomporsi without even the worst holes. The passenger is not getting those typical shocks to which many German cars have become accustomed. Sure, the seats are very padded their work, but also demonstrate an excellent compromise suspension calibration.”

A series of rather serious enthusiast tests from give a decent overall impression of several Fiat offerings. Grande Punto is knocked for lacking power and a less-than perfectly usable rear hatch. “The vision side driver is not the maximum, the uprights are quite large and the small windows do not help much,” we are told. “Rear access is easy, and opening the door is suitable for raising and lowering of the car without too many contortions.” The Panda review suggests the diesel engine (a theme in nearly every Fiat review) and praises the Panda’s “excellent maneuverability.”

But the Panda 100HP “wins the internet,” as the kids say. Between a killer evo review (“brilliant”) and a virtual driving experience that suggests it is invulnerable to high-speed crashes, the Panda 100HP seems to be the Fiat in which to “taste some brave manouever.” Too bad Chrysler has no apparent plans to bring it to America. So much for the internet, then.

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22 Comments on “Editorial: Chrysler Zombie Watch 4: Bella Macchina?...”

  • avatar

    German cars are not really known on the US side of the pond, for reliability. But interestingly enough, in Europe, they are thought to be reasonably reliable.

    I mark this down to different expectations.

    The relevant point here, though, is that Italian cars are generally less well engineered and significantly less reliable overall, than German cars.

    Chrysler had major problems with being Daimler-fied, what happens when they are Fiat-afied?

    Interestingly, both in the US and Europe, Japanese marques (especially and specifically Toyota, Honda and Mazda) are well thought of and considered amongst the most reliable in many studies. As in, better than BMW; better than SMART; better than VW/Audi; significantly better than Mercedes; and light years ahead of FIAT.

  • avatar

    I mark this down to different expectations.

    Well, yes. Compared to Renault, FIAT, PSA-Citroen and such, your average VW must look like a rock.

    On a serious note, I’ve heard all sorts of explanations, from the nonsensical (“Europeans don’t drive as much, and thusly they don’t really care that their cars break down more often”; WTF!?) to elitist (“They save the best for the domestic market”; Oh really? So VW doesn’t want to do well in North America?) to the racist (“Mexican workers can’t assemble a decent car”; forgetting that the problematic B5 Passat and every Audi and Benz was made in Germany).

    Personally, none of these make sense. The only reason the Europeans have gotten away with making problematic cars is because they had no competition. Between outright trade barriers and subsequent market adjustments that favour domestics (such as the artificially low price of diesel that stymied the previously-diesel-less Asians) it was hard for the Asians and Americans to make inroads. That’s changing, though.

  • avatar

    One thing is for sure. It would take one hell of a marketing campaign (that CryCo cannot afford) to even begin to change the mindset of the U.S. public into wanting these new Chrysler branded FIATs. You simply cannot just throw these things on the lot and expect people to buy them. Keeping in mind that most people won’t know about the man behind the curtains (FIAT), they will simply see Chrysler’s Chevy Aveo.

    I wonder if it would be to their advantage to just keep the FIAT name on the cars (could it really be any worse? After all FIAT is the one NOT in C11). Both brands have damaged names in the country, and without some ingenious (and very expensive) marketing I don’t see them standing a chance. Perhaps Chryster needs to pull a Toyota by marketing these cars under a Scion-like name.

  • avatar

    Everyone thinks I’m crazy when I tell them about this plan, but I’m confident that it’ll work.

    They need to take the Fiat 500, or maybe a larger Fiat, and redesign it in the mold of the AMC Gremlin. I’m sure Chrysler still has the rights to that name, right? They could bring back the little Gremlin character. Market it as “The New Gremlin – by Chrysler”. Make it available in all kinds of crazy colors, and be sure that the Levi’s interior package is on the options list.

    This will be the car that saves Chrysler.

  • avatar

    Perhaps Chryster needs to pull a Toyota by marketing these cars under a Scion-like name.

    Great idea. I imagine a low-cost lineup of cars, some shared with Chrysler and Dodge, but under a different brand.

    Maybe we could call that brand “Plymouth”

  • avatar

    I hired a Fiat Punto when I was in England a few years back. I was pretty certain “Punto” was Italian for “Piece of shit” … ugly, sharp plastics, road noise, and I don’t think the country had a motorway long enough for the vehicle to accelerate to 70mph. Looks like it’d slot into Chrysler’s current lineup just fine.

  • avatar

    It was a mistake for Chrysler to kill Plymouth. They need an economy/small car brand.

  • avatar

    The economics of the domestic car companies require high volumes for manufacturing efficiency especially at the lower cost end of the market where every dime counts. The average North American auto plant has a capacity of 200-300 thousand units per year. Not many of Chrysler’s current plants are capable of producing multiple models (including different platforms) on a common line (like many Japanese companies). This means we would need to see sales of at least 150,000 of these cars to get to 75% utilization. There’s nothing here that can sell in that kind of volume even if the plant supports all of North America (US, Canada, Mexico). Lower utilization drives up unit costs by requiring the overhead to be amortized over fewer units and typically makes labor less efficient.

    Unless Fiat is planning on supplying or supplementing Latin America, Asia or even Europe (doubtful), the economics just aren’t there for the current model. A new, more flexible model would help, but that is billions of (taxpayer) dollars and many years away.

  • avatar

    psharjinian: On a serious note, I’ve heard all sorts of explanations, from the nonsensical (“Europeans don’t drive as much, and thusly they don’t really care that their cars break down more often”; WTF!?)

    This plays into reliability expectations in two ways.

    One, if people drive less, they will put fewer miles on the car within a given amount of time. My Accord is six years old this month; it has 113,000 miles on the odometer. If my German relative has only put 75,000 miles on the odometer in that time on her 2003 Passat, I’m in a better position to judge long-term reliability.

    Two, if mass transit is available, or people live in more dense surroundings, a car is less critical. If my Accord dies, I’m really stuck. If it has to go the dealer for several annoying problems, I’m much more likely to remember it, and let that influence my next vehicle purchase. Why? Because it causes a serious inconvenience to me.

    If my relative’s Passat does the same thing, she is less likely to notice it, because she isn’t as dependent on her car.

  • avatar

    Two, if mass transit is available, or people live in more dense surroundings, a car is less critical.

    This is the point I have trouble with. If said Passat breaks down, it still costs money to fix, and it still breaks down with more frequency and magnitude of cost than, say, a Toyota Avensis.

    I cannot imagine Europeans are that different from North Americans or Japanese that they believe more and costly repairs are acceptable unless they just don’t know any better.

  • avatar

    Maserati and Ferrari are FIAT as well. Let’s hope for a mass-production Quattroporte as an replacement for the 300C. Wouldn’t that be nice? Who would mind to drive a Volks-Ferrari instead of the Viper? The future will be/may be bright…

  • avatar

    “taste some brave manouever.” has GOT to be the slogan for one of the ‘new’ (old) US automakers. Fiatsler? Chevillac?

    -miles better than “bold moves”;

    –which sounds kindof like a nursing home occupant having a bowel movement unassisted.

  • avatar

    …replace Volks-Ferrari with Ferrari di Popolo, pls. Sounds better.

  • avatar

    I have a 500 1.3 Multijet diesel, and would be happy to pen something for you on it, with consideration for posting on the site.

  • avatar

    But are Fiat’s products up to the challenge of overcoming Chrysler’s brand baggage? And will they translate into the US market success that Chrysler needs to pay off its taxpayer loans?

    For anyone not hefting a crack pipe, those are obviously rhetorical questions.

  • avatar
    Edward Niedermeyer

    Duster: We are still temporarily without an editorial budget, but hit us up at the contact tab of the nav bar.

    NickR: Yeah man. Gimme a dollar for the bus?

  • avatar

    If said Passat breaks down, it still costs money to fix, and it still breaks down with more frequency and magnitude of cost than, say, a Toyota Avensis.

    I think there’s the possibility that euro mechanics, especially german ones, may be better able to maintain and repair their vehicles.

    They have more localized know-how, and they often have a better technical training system.

    This doesn’t solve the gap, but it can minimize it to an acceptable level.

  • avatar

    That’s one strange picture. Much like the subject matter (and through nobody’s fault but my own), I don’t understand it at all, but I am strangely attracted to it, much like an insect to a flame…

  • avatar

    At least in the UK, they are well aware that Japanese cars tend to be the most reliable. The Honda S2000 perennially wins Top Gear’s owner surveys, usually followed by more Hondas and Toyotas.

    The biggest losers are always either French or Mercedes.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    The in/competence and un/friendliness of dealer service can spoil (e.g., VW in North America) or bolster (e.g., VW in Europe) a car line’s reputation for dependability.

  • avatar

    Am I missing something, my father has owned a garage for thirty years. In 1980 he was on the verge of bancruptcy! Slowly but surly Japanese cars started creeping around & presto he became a wealthy man. To this day I write up thousand dollar invoices to Japanese made cars, and their owners say “Well this cars been good to me” I write up hundred dollar invoice to American made or German, owner says “Piece of Junk, hey what do you think of HonToMazShitsa as my next car” German cars are not light years ahead of Italain cars. I mean men who have driven Fiats were inspired to build Ferraris, Lamborghinis & thousands of other radical forward thinking cars. Germans poach Italian engineers, designers all the time. The Japanese with out Italian design studios couldn’t design a paper bag. And reliability is an illusion! You buy a car these days from anyone, and its built to the same mass produced standards. My father would never drive a Japanese car, & any self respecting mechanic would never drive one. Ony Walmart types drive them. An italian test driver once said “their not bad cars, just bad drivers” Support your technician buy Japanese, enrich him buy Korean.

  • avatar
    Martin B

    German cars are not really known on the US side of the pond, for reliability. But interestingly enough, in Europe, they are thought to be reasonably reliable.

    This is an Italian’s view of German engineering:

    Guiseppe, an Italian engineer, stayed with us for a couple of weeks with his wife and baby. He had a very expensive collapsible German-made perambulator (I think Americans call them strollers) for the baby.

    One day he sat in the lounge unfolding the pram, and it fell to pieces.

    “Typical German engineering,” he said. “If this was an Italian pram it would fall to pieces immediately when you bring it home from the shop. Then you fix it. Now that its weakest point has been fixed, it will last forever. But a German pram will last a long time, and just when you’ve learned to trust it, it will fall apart and let you down. Give me Italian engineering any day. When you understand it, it’s much more reliable.”

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