Fiat 500: The Littlest Bailout Baby

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
fiat 500 the littlest bailout baby

Chrysler is in desperate need of quick fixes. New versions of old nameplates (300, Grand Cherokee) and quick ‘n dirty refreshes, and modifications of existing, moribund nameplates are not going to keep showrooms busy while new, Fiat-based products wend their way to market over the next five years. And so, Fiat is bringing its 500 minicar to the US next year. At least that’s why Chrysler says it’s coming: to “attract a new customer to our showrooms.” Of course, that’s far from the whole story.

Though the 500 has a certain undeniable charm, it’s looking at some tough sledding in the US market. For one thing, it makes BMW’s MINI look like a Ford Flex. For another, the base engine makes all of 100 horsepower and 92 lb-ft of torque. Neither of these would be unforgivable sins if the indicated MSRP for the Cinquecento weren’t in the $20,000-$25,000 range. Add it all up though, and you’ve got a bella fiasco.

The challenges facing the Cinquecento’s success are even greater when you consider that Chrysler will handpick dealers to build unique showroom “salons” for the 500, in addition to hiring dedicated sales and management staff. Also, all Chrysler dealers will have to carry Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands by 2011, so it’s difficult to understand where the lucky metropolitan-area dealers will find room on the wall to add a Fiat logo. Let alone a possible Alfa badge in the future.

Luckily, the 500 isn’t being brought to the US because anyone inside Fiat or Chrysler thinks it’s going to sell particularly well. The only reason America is getting the 500 is because Fiat gets another five percent of Chrysler’s “equity” when it begins selling a 40 mpg vehicle, per the federal mandate. The other reason: Fiat wants to use the 500 to consolidate its strong presence in Latin America, where small, 100 hp vehicles are more accepted. The majority of 500 production at Toluca, Mexico will go to Brazil and other Latin American countries, as a halo for the Fiat brand’s success there.

Meanwhile, in the US market, the 500 will be little more than an overpriced fashion accessory. It may nibble around the edges of MINI’s niche, but it’s hard to imagine many potential MINI customers being drawn away by a smaller car with less power, especially if the price difference isn’t significant relative to the mass-market B-segment competitors.

Tellingly, even Chrysler’s optimistic sales projections show Fiat Group products making up a nearly unnoticeable percentage of US-market sales. Nobody, from Sergio Marchionne on down, cares if this car succeeds in the US except for the fashionista fanatics who will pay nearly any price for one. And they’ll get exactly what they deserve.

Join the conversation
2 of 60 comments
  • Radimus Radimus on Nov 11, 2009

    If the whole boutique thing doesn't work out they could always reskin it and rebadge it as a Dodge Colt.

  • Steven Lance Steven Lance on Jul 06, 2010

    It's cute and stylish...they can sell a few as a niche vehicle. The biggest challenge will be the reliability, and general inability to find mechanics who can work on them. The style might make people pick it over a more practical Fit and even pay a little more, but once you add reliability and serviceability, the Honda lead widens. I do think that FUN small cars are a coming trend. But U.S. families with kids (and with more kids than those in Europe) will require much bigger cars than this for the foreseeable future.

  • 3SpeedAutomatic I drove a rental Renegade a few years back. Felt the engine (TIgerShark) was ready was ready to pop out from under the hood. Very crude!! Sole purpose was CAFE offsets. Also drove a V6 Cherokee which was very nice and currently out of production. Should be able to scoop up one at a fair deal.🚗🚗🚗
  • Inside Looking Out This is actually the answer to the question I asked not that long ago.
  • Inside Looking Out Regarding "narrow windows" - the trend is that windows will eventually be replaced by big OLED screens displaying some exotic place or may even other planet.
  • Robert I have had 4th gen 1996 model for many years and enjoy driving as much now as when I first purchased it - has 190 hp variant with just the right amount of power for most all driving situations!
  • ToolGuy Meanwhile in Germany...