Fiat 500: The Littlest Bailout Baby

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • 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.

  • Michael Gallagher I agree to a certain extent but I go back to the car SUV transition. People began to buy SUVs because they were supposedly safer because of their larger size when pitted against a regular car. As more SUVs crowded the road that safety advantage began to dwindle as it became more likely to hit an equally sized SUV. Now there is no safety advantage at all.
  • Probert The new EV9 is even bigger - a true monument of a personal transportation device. Not my thing, but credit where credit is due - impressive. The interior is bigger than my house and much nicer with 2 rows of lounge seats and 3rd for the plebes. 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, around 300miles of range, and an e-mpg of 80 (90 for the 2wd). What a world.
  • Ajla "Like showroom" is a lame description but he seems negotiable on the price and at least from what the two pictures show I've dealt with worse. But, I'm not interested in something with the Devil's configuration.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I really like the C-Class, it reminds me of some trips to Russia to visit Dear Friend VladdyPoo.
  • ToolGuy New Hampshire