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 next month will start selling the Fiat 500 model, a minicar that has been on sale in Europe since 2007.
Galeana gives Soave an update 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.”
But she also has heard many stories about how many Baby Boomer Americans loved their Fiats – when they worked. 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 Italian clothes, food, restaurants, 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 have been as much fun as this one. I have the best job in the industry.”
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, the 500 comes only with a manual gearbox.
Soave thinks the car will appeal to a cross-section of consumers, from Generation Y buyers to older people “who are young at heart and want to drive something that reflects their personalities.”
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.
For Fiat to succeed in the U.S. this time around, its quality must rank high, says David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Automotive Test Center.
“It is a big move for Fiat to come back to America,” he tells Ward’s. “They understand their past here. (Chrysler CEO Sergio) Marchionne is no dummy. He knows the quality of the 500 has to be bulletproof.”
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.”