DETROIT — Laura Soave, who spearheads the Fiat brand's second stab at the U.S. market, is chatting with Michigan dealer Carl Galeana at the North American International Auto Show here.
He is one of 135 dealers that this month will start selling the Fiat 500 model, a minicar.
Galeana updates Soave on a construction project of converting his former Saturn store into a Fiat showroom.
“He's confident it will be ready by February,” she says. “You've heard of the TV show ‘Extreme Makeover’? This may be ‘Extreme Dealership Makeover.’”
It also may be Extreme Auto Maker Makeover. As head of Chrysler Group LLC's Fiat brand in North America, Soave is in the final stages of bringing the Italian brand back to America. It left 27 years ago, hamstrung by falling sales and poor vehicle reliability.
Soave has heard the old bad-quality jokes, such as Fiat standing for “Fix It Again Tony.”
She also has heard of how many Baby Boomer Americans loved their Fiats — when they ran. But if Fiats of yesteryear had quality issues, so did the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto of that era.
Yet, Fiat had something going for it then, as it has now, she says. It's not just a small car. It's a small Italian car, she says. “Americans love Italian things.”
That includes clothes, food, travel spots, cappuccino and, of course, cars.
“And this is a stylish Italian car with reliability, good fuel economy and a great price ($15,500),” Soave says.
She tells of taking Fiat 500s to consumer-research clinics. “Everyone liked them, even when they didn't know the brand,” she says. “When we told them it was Italian, they liked the cars even more.
“Until now, the only Italian car you could buy in the U.S. was an expensive sports car, such as Maserati, which, by the way, is a great car.” And by the way, is a unit of Fiat Automobiles SpA.
“Fiat is an iconic brand,” Soave says. “I've done a lot of vehicle launches, but none as much fun as this one.”
The 500 has been tweaked for the U.S. market, says Ariel Gavilan, Chrysler's senior manager-global communications.
He points out various American-market features of a model on the auto show floor.
“A lot of it is simple stuff, but it's not on the European versions,” he says. “There are cupholders, an arm rest and steering-wheel controls. The glove box is covered; in Europe it isn't.”
A 6-speed automatic transmission will be offered in the U.S. In Europe, only a manual is offered.
Soave thinks the 500 will appeal to a cross-section of consumers, from Generation Y buyers to older people “who are young at heart.”
Some prospective buyers are expected to be those Baby Boomers who owned a Fiat in their younger days and “forgive” the brand for quality sins of the past, she says.
Fiat's goal is to sell 50,000 cars in the U.S. this year, says Soave, 38, the daughter of Italian immigrants.
To aid that sales cause, she jokes she has a secret weapon: “There are 27 million Italian-Americans. It's a unique subset, they are my subset. Many of them will be buying Fiat 500s.”