Monday, November 29, 2010

LA 2010: Fiat 500 - Couture Car at an Off-the-Rack price

One of the highlights of the LA Auto Show was the North American Debut of the 2011 Fiat 500. The 500, or "Cinquecento", was introduced in Europe in 2007. It has been thoroughly adapted for North American tastes and regulations and will be offered initially as a coupe in three different trim levels, Pop, Sport, and Lounge. All will be equipped with a 1.4 litre four cylinder engine and a choice of 5 speed manual or six speed automatic transmissions. There will be a high degree of standard equipment and base price will be a highly competitive $15,500, with a fully loaded model ringing the cash register at approximately $21,500. A convertible model will join the lineup sometime in 2011 (no price yet) and an electric version is planned for 2012.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Laura Soave, head of Fiat North America about the car and the marketing plan behind it. Soave, an Italian American herself, has personal experience with the classic 500 from childhood trips to Italy and as she drove the new car on stage, a photo of her at age three sitting on the hood of her uncle's 500 was projected on the backdrop.

Soave explained that the plan for Fiat is to merchandise a high degree of personalization and offer customers an unprecedented level of choice in a car of this price class. Three trim levels, fourteen exterior colors including "Rosso Brilliante", "Verde Oliva" and "Mocha Latte", fourteen different interior combinations, five sets of wheels and three different steering wheels add up to a LOT of choices. Soave, who comes from Lincoln-Mercury, admits her task is as much about selling Italian design and fashion as it is about marketing a car. She stated that there are over 500,000 potential build combinations and feels that the high degree of uniqueness will be attract style conscious customers who are tired of greige. When I called it "a couture car at an off the rack price", she nodded in agreement.

The process of shepherding customers through the selection process and keeping them interested for the 45 to 60 days it will take to build the Cinquecento will fall on the Fiat Dealer Network. Soave explained that Fiat has its own brand new dealer network of approximately 134 outlets nationwide, of whom approximately 80% have a Chrysler franchise presently. They will concentrate initially on major urban areas and the west coast. The Fiat sales staff will be non-commissioned and will be trained as consultants instead of traditional salespeople. This will allow them to take maximum advantage of the high degree of personalization and keep the experience as customer-focused as possible.

Fiat SpA has invested approximately $550 million in refitting a Chrysler plant in Toluca, Mexico which will be the sole source of the North American 500s. Approximately 50,000 units will be available for North America in 2011, with a potential plant capacity of some 70,000 units of all models in 2012 and beyond.

The first production units are special "Prima Editione" units which were reserved online. Those cars, identical except for color, will begin to appear on North American roads next month. The first press units will become available next month, and I'm looking forward to driving it. Benvenuta, Cinquecento.

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