Tim Kuniskis 2011 Fiat.jpg FCA
Tim Kuniskis, when he was named head of Fiat brand for North America in 2011.

FCA Committed to Fiat Brand in U.S.

FCA North America’s Tim Kuniskis says he sees “some upside potential” for Fiat, and that Dodge customers aren’t concerned with age of platform supporting Charger and Challenger.

CHELSEA, MI – With U.S. sales tallying 4,170 vehicles through May – less than 2% of all Ram pickups sold in the same period – one might think the Fiat brand is on the way out.

But parent FCA North America vows to keep it going.

“We’re still working on Fiat…we’re still committed to it,” Tim Kuniskis, the newly installed head of cars for FCA NA, tells media Thursday at FCA’s annual media preview at its proving grounds here.

Kuniskis classifies Fiat as having had a “very quick rise,” with sales reaching 50,000 in North America in the brand’s second year here.

However, he blames the bifurcation of the Italian brand’s lineup as having had a harmful, not helpful, effect on U.S. sales.

“What we found was as we introduced more models, we just spread out the range for the same customer that was going to be there, and our sales leveled off to about the 30,000 range,” he says.

Through May, Wards Intelligence data shows the 500 small car, the first Fiat model for the U.S., still makes up the majority of the brand’s sales, 1,386, although by a slim margin. The 500X CUV was a close second, tallying 1,284 deliveries in the first five months of the year, while the Fiat 124 Spyder 2-seat roadster racked up 1,191. (Just 309 units of the long-wheelbase 500L were sold through May.)

“There’s some upside potential (with Fiat), but in today’s market with fuel prices, it’s tough,” Kuniskis says.

Small, fuel-efficient cars such as Fiats do face a rocky road due to the relatively low price for a gallon of regular unleaded ($2.69 Thursday per AAA’s Fuel Gauge report) in the U.S., a situation that’s stretched for years and has allowed light trucks to overtake cars and the CUV sector to flourish.

Wards Small Car segment was down 12.6% through May, although the Small Specialty segment where the 500 and Spyder reside is showing less of a decline (-5.8%) thanks to a new-generation Hyundai Veloster and closeout deals on the departing Volkswagen Beetle.

But industry-watchers and analysts argue the Fiat brand has not been on the radar of most American car buyers due to poor marketing and an unfocused image.

While Kuniskis says U.S. sales have held consistently around the 30,000 range, the brand looks to miss that mark sharply this year. All four Fiat models were down significantly through May from year-ago, with losses ranging from 20.2% to 58.6%. A sales rate of 834 vehicles per month this year would equal 10,008 annual sales in 2019.

Dealers, many of whom have invested millions in standalone stores, told Automotive News last month there was “radio silence” from brand leadership about its future direction, something Kuniskis gives no word of here.

FCATopless Cat Menghia Fiat Abarth.jpg

Even with racy commercials such as this 2012 "Topless" spot featuring model Catrinel Menghia, Fiat and Abarth performance brands have not gained traction in U.S.

Meanwhile, Kuniskis says he’s pleased with Dodge-brand sales of roughly 190,000, although cars make up less of the brand’s sales than light trucks while accounting for slightly more of Dodge’s 7.3% loss through May than did declining light trucks.

“Add June to that and we’ll be at about 220,000-ish. I’m not going to do the math, because you’ll hold me to it, but if you were to project that out, compared to last year, it’s a pretty good year compared to what the segments are doing,” he says.

Dodge plays in Wards Large Car (Charger), Middle Specialty Car (Challenger), Small Van (Caravan), Middle CUV (Journey) and Middle SUV (Durango) segments.

In Large Car, the Charger was the only entrant up through May, but in Middle Specialty the Challenger’s 22.7% loss was greater than the segment’s 11.5% drop.

The Caravan also was down slightly more than the decline in the Small Van sector, as was the Journey in the Middle CUV sector.

The Durango was 14.9% ahead of its sales a year ago and was outperforming the Middle SUV group, which was down 0.6% through May.

Dodge on Thursday debuted new Widebody variants of the Charger Hellcat and Charger Scat Pack here, with Kuniskis rebuffing questions about the age of the platform Dodge’s cars ride on.

“A customer has never once talked to me about a platform – (the media) does all the time,” he says. “Customers are looking for the features and benefits we offer.”

The platform underpinning the Charger, Challenger and Chrysler 300 dates back to the 1990s-era Mercedes E-Class, from then-Chrysler partner Daimler.

At a media event in Milan last year, the Charger and Challenger were shown as remaining in Dodge’s 5-year product plan.

TAGS: Dealers
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