TORINO, Italy – With its 20% stake in Chrysler Group LLC, Fiat Automobiles SpA is in line to become the next prominent auto maker to impact the U.S. market.
The effect will not be felt for at least a few years as the transatlantic partnership is nurtured and the product pipeline filled.
In the meantime, Fiat’s styling studios here are not brimming with ideas from European designers eager to pen the next gotta-have vehicle for American consumers.
“We are not coming to the U.S. with cars that we have designed for the American market,” Lorenzo Ramaciotti, Fiat’s vice president-style, tells Ward’s during a visit to his studios here.
“I think we have to design European cars, Italian cars that are also suited for that market. I think an American customer who buys an Alfa Romeo or a Fiat wants to find something that is not what he can find in his average American car.”
Fiat hopes to export some of its European vehicles to the U.S. “We will see in the process which ones are best suited for that,” Ramaciotti says.
Maseratis and Ferraris (part of the Fiat Group) have populated tony American streets for years, but the Fiat brand has been absent in the U.S. since 1983. With its new Chrysler partnership, Fiat plans to sell the Cinquecento (500) hatchback in North America beginning in December.
Enormously popular in the home market since its launch in 2007, the 500 stands as a fun, affordable city car with a fuel-efficient engine that helped Fiat achieve the lowest average carbon-dioxide emissions of any European brand in 2009.
“We will see if we can export to the U.S. the same attitude, the same emotional appeal the car has in Europe,” Ramaciotti says.
The 500, to be assembled at Chrysler’s plant in Toluca, Mexico, has been spotted on metro Detroit roads for the past several months as the launch nears. Fiat expects Toluca to produce more than 100,000 Cinquecentos annually, divided between North America and Latin America.
Ramaciotti oversees six design studios, each dedicated to a different brand within the Fiat Group: Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Abarth, Lancia, Fiat and Fiat Professional (light-commercial vehicles). Ferrari has its own design studio.
He also leads design efforts for Case New Holland (tractors and agricultural equipment) and Iveco (trucks and commercial vehicles).
The Modena native graduated as a mechanical engineer from Turin Polytechnic and joined the Pininfarina SpA design house in 1973.
He went on to create more than 20 concept cars and developed esteemed models such as the Maserati Quattroporte and several Ferraris, including the 550 Maranello, 360 Modena, F430, 612 Scaglietti and Enzo supercar.
In all, Ramaciotti’s staff consists of 250 people in Italy working on both interiors and exteriors, plus 13 designers in Brazil, which for the first time is Fiat’s largest car market, even bigger than Italy. By comparison, Chrysler has 85 designers at its technical center in Auburn Hills, MI.
He says the success of the 500 hinges on American attraction to the same vehicle that has been a runaway success in Italy.
“We have not diluted the design features of the 500 for the American market,” he says. “We have adapted it in terms of (safety) legislation, but we are trying to keep the integrity of the design. I think maybe we should do the same for other cars.”
This week, Chrysler announces it has hired Laura Soave to reintroduce the Fiat Brand in North America.
Formerly of Volkswagen of America, Soave will report directly to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and hold full profit-and-loss responsibility for the Fiat portfolio in North America. She will work directly with the marketing, sales, service and dealer network organizations.
As the B-segment 500 arrives in Chrysler showrooms, a high-performance Abarth derivative will be available as well, with a 170-hp turbocharged version of Fiat’s 1.4L 4-cyl. “FIRE” engine, short for Fully Integrated Robotized Engine.
Fiat has used the term since the early 1970s, when the auto maker introduced robotics into the production process for engine manufacturing.
After the 500, the next Fiat Group vehicle destined for the U.S. has yet to be confirmed, but an announcement is expected at the Fiat Group Investor Day April 21 in Italy.
At the recent Geneva auto show, Fiat’s Alfa Romeo brand unveiled the all-new 5-door Giulietta, which replaces the 147 and is the first car on Fiat Group’s all-new “Compact” architecture.
Chrysler will adapt this modular architecture, which will be known as “Compact Wide” for U.S. vehicles, Fiat says.
It is believed one of the first applications will be the next-generation Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger sedans, slated to arrive in 2013, according to Ward’s AutoForecasts. Neither Chrysler nor Fiat are confirming which models will be built from the new architecture.
Alfa Romeo, which left the American market in 1995, is scheduled to step up its U.S. presence in 2012 or 2013. The brand’s only U.S. vehicle currently is the 8C Spider and Coupe. Production for worldwide distribution is limited to 500 units each, and the coupe is sold out.
But Ramaciotti understands Alfa Romeo needs more moderately priced luxury vehicles, such as the Giulietta, to gain traction – and volume – in the U.S.
“I think we have to understand the needs of the American customer, or at least of the American customer we want to reach,” he says.
“If we don’t have in our car a flavor of uniqueness, of Italian design that makes the car stand out from the rest, it will be difficult to have a reason (for consumers to buy), respecting the competition that’s already established there.”
Meanwhile, Ramaciotti’s studios are focused intently on styling aerodynamic cars that meet the pending Euro6 emissions standards in 2014.
“Aerodynamics is very important because as you reduce it, you really improve the emissions, especially in highway driving,” he says. “I lived through the first aerodynamic revolution in the early 1980s, which was more for speed and performance. Today, we are seeing a second equivalent of aerodynamics; in this case, it’s more for fuel efficiency.”
Ramaciotti is proud of the coefficient of drag (0.3) achieved in the Cinquecento but says weight reduction is a top priority throughout the Fiat Group portfolio.
“One thing that could help is to reduce the size of the glass, because it is heavier,” he says. “But today there is a request for bigger and bigger skyroofs.”