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Los Angeles Auto Show: Fiat 500 Hits the Ground Running

Fiat (FIATY.PK) expects to hit the ground running in the U.S. market, with sales of the little Fiat 500 -- shown here at this week's Los Angeles Auto Show press preview -- expected to start immediately after Jan. 1.

That's fast, considering the Chrysler Group only just announced on Nov. 17 which 130 U.S. dealers will get the Fiat franchise. With less than two months to go until then, you have to figure it will take a while for all 130 dealerships to get going.

Chrysler spokesman Ralph Kisiel said that in December 2010, dealers will have at least one demonstrator model for test drives. The first retail sales are expected in January 2011, but probably won't reach much volume until the spring.

Fiat is in a hurry, considering it's been absent from the U.S. market for 27 years. Back then, Fiat had a reputation for terrible quality. Today's models get good marks in European customer surveys, but the brand still has a reputation to live down.

Fiat never actually went away in the U.S.
Fiat is up to speed on U.S. consumers. The Fiat parent company hasn't been completely absent from the United States for all that time, because it also owns the Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands.

Ferrari never left. Maserati was out of the U.S. market for 12 years, but Fiat re-launched it in 2002. Alfa Romeo quit the U.S. market in 1995 after a 43-year run, and hasn't returned. At the time it pulled the plug on U.S. operations, Alfa Romeo was sold in the United States through a joint venture with Chrysler.

Chrysler and Fiat are mum on the details, but today's newly designated U.S. Fiat dealers can also expect additional Fiat models as they are introduced for sale in the United States. That could also be the case for a possible Alfa Romeo comeback as well.

All 130 Fiat franchises went to dealers who already have other Chrysler Group franchises. AutoNation (AN), the biggest U.S. dealership chain, said last month it's the nation's biggest Fiat dealer, with seven Fiat franchises.

Meanwhile, Chrysler goes to Europe
At the same time, Chrysler is working to re-introduce its brands in Europe, using the Fiat dealership network. Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy last year as a satellite of the much larger Fiat Group.

Laura Soave, head of the Fiat brand in North America (photo), said at the Los Angeles Auto Show that manufacturer's suggested retail price for the 2012 Fiat 500 is $15,500. The car is built in Mexico.

The Fiat 500 is part of a larger U.S. automotive trend toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars with a higher level of features and much more expressive styling than American customers are used to seeing in small cars. Other examples include the Ford Fiesta, the upcoming Chevy Beat and the Honda CR-Z hybrid.


Photo: Chrysler