Dealer Carl Galeana's first Fiat 500 subcompact customer was a 16-year-old getting her first car as a birthday present. The second buyer was a pig farmer who wanted a little runabout as an alternative to his pickup truck.
“We're seeing Baby Boomers all the way down to teenagers,” Galeana says of customers at the newly opened Fiat of Lakeside “studio,” as Fiat calls its stores.
Seventy Fiat dealerships now operate in the U.S. Plans call for 90 more. Galeana's is in Macomb Township, MI, in what was his Saturn dealership, until General Motors killed that brand.
“People coming in have done their research,” he says of the first wave of customers checking out the Fiat 500, representing the Italian auto maker's return to the U.S. market after nearly three decades. “They know a lot more about the car than we thought they would.”
Dealers expected the stylish subcompact would draw the young crowd. “They were surprised; they didn't expect people from all walks of life,” says Laura Soave, head of Chrysler's Fiat brand in North America. “This vehicle is not about demographics, it's about lifestyle.”
After the initial debut of the 500 hatchback, the auto maker now comes to market with a cabrio model called the 500c.
Its folding cloth top is power operated. Not fully a convertible, it resembles a giant sunroof that slides open from front to back and down to the rear spoiler.
“The original 500 cabrio was launched in Italy on July 4, 1957,” Soave says at a New York media preview. “The new one has been sold in Italy since 2007. We thought this is the perfect time to bring it back to America.”
The latest model is thoroughly modern, yet takes many design cues from the original car that represented a sort of post-World War II revived spirit of motoring fun in Europe, she says.
Fiat sees its 500 as mainly competing against BMW's Mini brand in the U.S. small-car segment.
“The Fiat 500c is quieter than the Mini (convertible), with both the top up and down,” says Joseph Grace, a Chrysler vehicle line executive. “It has 70% less header shake. It's not just a summer car.”
Fiat is borrowing a page from the Mini playbook by rolling out different versions of the same theme. Next up in North America for the Fiat 500 is a high-performance Abarth model. It will arrive in 2012.
Fiat's secret weapon in the U.S. is Americans' love of Italian things, from food to wine to travel to cars, says Soave, a daughter of Italian immigrants.
Before the Fiat 500 made the scene, the only Italian vehicles sold in the U.S. were pricey super-sports cars. Even buyers of some of those are checking out the 500 at dealerships.
“We're seeing a lot of Maserati and Ferarri owners coming in and adding a Fiat 500 to their stable of Italian cars,” Soave says.
Lisa Copeland, a Fiat dealer in Austin, TX, tells of a Maserati owner who bought two Fiat 500s. “Another customer loved the car so much she became a salesperson at a Fiat studio in Seattle.”
The 500c base price is $19,500, “making it the only cabrio in its competitive set under $20,000,” Soave says.
An upscale Lounge model cabrio is $23,500. There's a $4,000 difference between the carbrio and hatchback.