By on August 19, 2019

2018 Fiat 500 Abarth cover

Fiat, the ancient automotive brand found at the top of very few American shopping lists, finds itself in the midst of a transformation. On its European home turf, emissions rules have grown ever more strict; meanwhile, many buyers are gravitating towards the type of vehicles offered by corporate sibling Jeep, and Fiat Chrysler would prefer they purchase the seven-slot brand. That leaves Fiat with a mandate to think small.

As details emerge from the latest meeting of Fiat brass, it looks like the brand’s future holds efficiency but precious little flash.

The brand’s diminished stature was made apparent in last year’s five-year FCA product plan, which focused heavily on the cash-cow Jeep and Ram brands, but Fiat remains important to the corporate mothership for its Euro small-car sales and EV presence.

Speaking to Autocar, Fiat CEO Olivier François said the brand’s strategy is simple.

“For our future product plan, we need the right balance between the two dimensions: the Fiat 500 family and family transportation. There will be no big cars, no premium cars, no sporty cars because they have no legitimacy,” said François.

“We will be present in the C-segment [compact] but not much more. All models will sit within 3.5m and 4.5m. This is where Fiat will play. We need more EVs. And we need more 500 models that look legitimate enough to take higher pricing.”

Fiat recently punted production of the current-generation 500 to Poland to make room in Turin for an all-electric 500e successor expected out next year. The old 500 will remain, offering a low-cost entry point to the brand. In the U.S., expect to see FCA’s new turbo 1.3-liter take up residence beneath the returning model’s hood, hooked up to an eTorque mild hybrid system. The engine already finds a home in the 500X. Autocar has learned that the all-electric model might sport clamshell-style doors for better rear-seat ingress/egress.

The 500e remains FCA’s only EV in North America.

While Europeans can expect new 500 variants like the roomier Giardiniera estate, existing models like the 500L and Jeep Renegade-based 500X have a hazy future. Autocar reports that the 500X will bow out of the Euro market; Automotive News reports that we’ll lose the 500L, angering a vanishingly small number of buyers. Meanwhile, UK buyers no longer have access to the non-Abarth 124 Spider, and it remains to be seen how long the model kicks around. It’s up to Mazda, really.

Earlier this year, François told Autocar that he’d be open to a successor, assuming he can find a partner. No shared platform, no new Spider.

Image: FCA

“The 124 market is a niche one,” said said. “It is profitable business for us, but only because of the joint venture. It was an opportunity and we took it. It makes money and it adds a certain cool factor. But I accept that such a car may not be key to the future of the brand. It is not what I’d call a pure, absolute Fiat, but for now, it remains an interesting opportunity.”

The Spider might have legs in Europe, but not in the States. Sales of the MX-5-based roadster fell 19 percent in the first half of 2019, following an even steeper decline seen in 2018. Overall, the barely-there Fiat brand fell 38 percent through the end of June. And yet Fiat officials say an American pull-out is not in the cards.

[Image: © 2018 Chris Tonn/TTAC, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

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23 Comments on “As It Plots a Modest Path Forward, Fiat Thinks Small...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “the Fiat 500 family”

    “we need more 500 models”

    Wrong, wrong. Naming everything “500” is not only uncreative, it isn’t working. Time to move on, Fiat.

    This corporate foolishness tempers my weakness for unreliable Italian cars.

  • avatar
    Ce he sin

    “Fiat recently punted production of the current-generation 500 to Poland to make room in Turin for an all-electric 500e successor expected out next year.”
    The current 500 has only ever been made in Poland (with some in Mexico for the North and South American markets). It hasn’t therefore been moved from Turin.

  • avatar

    I actually like the 500. It’s small and interesting and has personality, which is ever-rarer in the automotive world. But for North America, at least, it seems that there is a size below which most people simply will not buy a car, regardless of price or any other virtue. That Fiat seems to have taken up permanent residence at the bottom of the JD Power reliability rankings probably doesn’t help. Mini seems to have acknowledged this and has made their small cars larger while semi-successfully scaling their design language up to compact SUVs. The 500L moves well past quirky and is just plain weird. The 500x doesn’t look like an SUV, and even if it did, it’s still a Fiat, and branding matters. See: Renegade. I suspect that if Fiat has a future anywhere outside of Italy, their best way forward is to become the IKEA of the car world and sell cheap design. Be a cut-rate Alfa. That starts every time.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I wouldn’t mind the Giardiniera estate if they brought it here in the states. Slightly larger than a 500 still nice retro look but smaller than a CUV yet practical enough.

  • avatar

    “And we need more 500 models that look legitimate enough to take higher pricing.”

    — This is their single, biggest, mistake. Trying to make all of their people movers into a 500 lookalike is absolutely WHY Fiat is failing in the US; dressing a Panda as a 500x is ludicrous; keep it unique, that’s why it worked. All you have to do is look at what’s happened to Mini in trying to make all their ‘bigger’ models look like the original Cooper.

  • avatar

    I suspect all those FCA dealers who shelled out big dough for FIAT franchises in 2011 are bent out of shape in a bad way.

    FIAT USA is on track to sell something like 25,000 vehicles this year. Wild guess there are 200 FIAT dealers, which would mean they’re each selling 10 low-margin cars per month. Ouch.

    Can the brand be saved in the US? I have strong doubts.

    • 0 avatar

      Hendrick Fiat of Cary (Raleigh, NC) shut its doors, the Alfa Romeo moved across the street. I think the nearest Fiat dealer is now in Charlotte. I was about ready to look at a spider while getting an oil change on my SS until I realized there was no Fiat.

    • 0 avatar

      >>Wild guess there are 200 FIAT dealers, <<

      iirc there were about 200 Fiat dealers that went all in on a separate Fiat "studio". Since dealer facilities requirements were loosened so they could show Fiats in the same showroom as the US FCA brands, the total grew to something in the high 300s.

      • 0 avatar

        Per a Google search, there are (as of June 9) 377 Fiat dealerships in the U.S. They call them “studios,” but what I found doesn’t say how many are stand-alone Fiat dealerships.

  • avatar

    Why not go all out and Hellcat the 500?

    Put the Hemi in the hatch like the old Ford Festiva SHOgun.

    I really think it’s what the people want.

  • avatar

    In my mind, Fiat is permanently linked to Topo Gigio, and that guy that spins plates on the Ed Sullivan Show. Even though I barely remember that show from the re-runs. Not a serious, real car. Face it, Fiat, there is only so much of a market for pedal-cars.
    “Why not go all out and Hellcat the 500?” – because the little wheels would fall off.

  • avatar

    Screw the 500 and give us a retro 124.

  • avatar

    >>And we need more 500 models that look legitimate enough to take higher pricing.”<<

    There is that drumbeat again. It's all about ever higher transaction prices and gross margins.

    My suspicion is FCA is concerned about what it would cost to compensate the dealers if Fiat was pulled from the market, so they are trying to sabotage the brand, so the dealers give up and drop Fiat on their own.

    Ever drive a 500? I have. A couple of them. One was a 2017 Pop Cabrio. Delightful little car. I had read the road tests crying about the rough ride and lack of power, but found the ride perfectly fine for a small car and the power from the non-turbo engine plenty for keeping up with traffic, and this was an automatic.

    In 2018, they "improved" the Pop trim by adding the turbocharger from the previously discontinued-for-lack of-interest Turbo model, and the 16" wheels and 45 series tires from the previously discontinued-for-lack-of-interest Sport, and a big price increase. I drove a 2019 Pop Cabrio with these "improvements". In traffic, the turbo provided no perceptible improvement in performance, while the car rode like an ox cart, constantly bouncing on every road surface driven on. I drove my VW over the same streets after the Fiat drive. The VW rode like a 707 in comparison to the Fiat.

    Road tests of the 2019 500X complain that, in spite of the new engine, the trans is still doggy, the ride still too stiff, the steering still too numb, but there is a new complaint about the 500X: the price is now "exorbitant", with one test blatantly saying something larger and nicer, like a CR-V can be had for the same coin as the 500X. FCA has been so successful in sabotaging the 500X that, in their June sales report, the 500 outsold the 500X, by 50%, 306 to 200. For the first half of the year, the microcar that "no-one wants" outsold the CUV, the sort of car "everyone wants" 1,692 to 1,484.

    By the way, the same things are happening to the Renegade. You can lease a larger Compass for significantly less than a Renegade.

    As for the 500L, why? If I was running FCA, the L would have been dropped long ago as it is surely cannibalizing the 500X.

  • avatar

    In keeping with FCA’s “one brand per niche” mindset, it’s probably better to keep the few small cars FCA has left as Fiats than to try to squeeze them into any other brand. That implies a three-vehicle lineup:

    Something compelling to replace the 500L in the compact segment

    Personally, I think that should be a new Strada. The Strada, called Ritmo in European markets, was an average C-segment hatch except that it had terrific funky styling that was unlike anything else in the late ’70s. Bring something else with totally different styling, don’t call it “500,” and maybe you can sell a few more copies than the bloated and undistinguished 500L managed.

    • 0 avatar

      >>Personally, I think that should be a new Strada<<

      Fiat introduced a new C segment line a few years ago: Tipo, in 5 door hatchback, wagon and sedan versions. I think they are reasonably handsome cars.

      FCA designed them cheap and dirty, in an attempt to compete with Dacia. The Tipo has been roundly criticized for it's poor ride, poor handling, and cheap materials, without actually being as cheap as a Dacia to compensate for it's many shortcomings. About a year ago, FCA said that they will not make any further investment in the Tipo. As EU regulations surpass it, the Tipo will become a third world only product. For the first half of 2019, the Tipo's EU sales rank 10th in the C segment, at 47.895, less than half the sales of the Focus or Octavia and less than a quarter of the sales of the Golf.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re not bad-looking, but they’re generic. They should come with something as eye-catching as the first Ritmo. Italians aren’t going to bring Toyota reliability or VW precision, but they can do extroverted styling very, very well.

      • 0 avatar

        >>They should come with something as eye-catching as the first Ritmo. Italians aren’t going to bring Toyota reliability or VW precision, but they can do extroverted styling very, very well.<<

        They could bring a car that looked like a cannoli, but, as a poorly established/unestablished brand, they need to bring it like Hyundai and Yugo brought there first models to the US 30 years ago: cheap, compellingly cheap, so cheap people overlook the lack of established presence, or memories of their previous presence.

        FCA tried to get better traction for Fiat in 2016. They dropped the requirement that dealers have a separate showroom for Fiat, and they both increased content and cut the price of the 500 for 2017. Then they did a 180 for 2018, jacking prices up. They have also zeroed out the advertising budget for Fiat. The company clearly doesn't care if they sell any Fiats or not. If fact they are doing about everything they can to prevent Fiats being sold, short of withdrawing the brand and paying millions in compensation to dealers.

  • avatar

    I suspect the issue with the Miata IS the 124. They are very comparable cars, but the Fiat version is MUCH cheaper in the real world, and more easily tunable if you are into that sort of thing. It is also rides more comfortably and is less nervous to drive, and the base model is better equipped. There is only so much market for this sort of thing in the US, land of the waddling CUV, and the two of them are splitting it up.

    I bought a leftover 2018 124 Lusso for about $8K off and love the thing. Makes a perfect pairing with my GTI. Mazda dealers were offering a grand or two on 2018 Miatas and no discounts at all on 2019s with the new motor. It was a no brainer, and I like the look and feel of the Fiat better. I have owned a 500 Abarth in the past and have zero fears of anything Fiat.

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