Car Guy

Fiat’s Got Troubles

But this time they can't be blamed on the car.

By 1.3.12

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History may be about to repeat itself -- for Fiat.

The Italian automaker's first U.S. model since 1987 is apparently a flop... so far, at least.

According to the Detroit News and DailyTech, only about 12,000 Fiat 500s have been sold to date -- which is barely a fourth of the 50,000 units annually projected by Fiat management.

But this time, it's probably not the car that's the problem.

Small, fuel-efficient -- and fun -- cars are very much in. Minis are moving, despite some significant early teething problems with quality control. The Mazda3 is popular, too, and it's only slightly larger than the 500.

The difference?

The dealers.

In Fiat's case, there aren't any. Or rather, there are far too few.

In Virginia, for instance, there are only three Fiat stores -- and they're all clustered in Northern Virginia within 50 miles of downtown Washington, D.C. Two of them -- the Vienna and Alexandria stores -- are within 20 miles of each other.

This means that anyone potentially interested in a 500 who doesn't actually live within the D.C. Beltway is very likely going to cross the 500 off their list simply because it's too much of a hassle to go look at one. Let alone face the prospect, down the road, of having to do overnight (or at least, all-day) drives to a dealership that's 100, 150 or 200 miles from home.

I did a little checking and it's easier to find a Porsche dealer in my part of Virginia than it is to find a Fiat store. There's one here in Roanoke -- 200 miles away from Northern Virginia. The closest Fiat store to me is in Richmond -- a three hour drive (one way) away.

Now, I really like the 500. In fact, I like it better than the Mini, because it's just as cute and equally fun to drive but costs $4,000 less ($15,00 to start vs. $19,500). It also gets 2-3 MPG better gas mileage than the Mini. For the money, it's hard to beat. And money notwithstanding, the 500 is a neat little car; a low-cost runabout that's highway-viable (unlike the idiotic SmartCar two-seater) but not a depressing little outhouse, either.

There's a lot of aftermarket support for these cars and Fiat sells a hopped-up Abarth version that I'd be very interested in.

But I would not buy one because of the dealer scarcity-remoteness issue.

And it's madness for Fiat management to believe anyone other than the most dedicated, gotta-have-this-car people will, either.

I mean, would you?

Porsche can afford to be hard-to-get. It is an iconic brand and Porsche-o-philes would probably be willing -- no, happy -- to crawl on their hands and knees for 100 miles merely for the privilege of being permitted to enter a Porsche dealership. And then pay full MSRP plus 10 percent.

Fiat can't do that.

In fact, Fiat management ought to know it must do precisely the opposite. That is, do the equivalent of crawling on its hands and knees to potential customers, in order to entice them into giving the 500 -- and Fiat -- a shot at their business.

Remember: This is a brand that most Americans under 45 have no living memory of. Or, they have bad memories of. As in Fix It Again Tony.

To overcome that -- to get people to even look -- you've gotta make it easy as well as enticing for them to do so. Make it hard and -- well, forget about it.

Right?

The part that really mystifies is that Fiat -- the new owner of Chrysler -- has access to Chrysler's vast dealer network. Indeed, access to Chrysler's vast dealer network was, reportedly, the only real reason for Fiat's investment in the otherwise belly-up Chrysler brand. Yet Fiat decided, for reasons I cannot fathom, not to sell the 500 through the existing network of Chrysler dealers.

Of which, by the way, there are many.

Or at least, a sufficiency.

We have two in or near Roanoke. Two more in Richmond. Five more -- from what I dug up -- in Northern Virginia. And of those five, three are spread out roughly mid-way between Roanoke (at the southern end of the state), Richmond (in the middle) and Northern Virginia, near DC. Most people interested in looking at or test-driving a new Chrysler, or Jeep or Dodge can find a dealer within an hour (or even a half-hour) of where they live. Very few would need to drive more than about 50 miles to do so.

So, why not Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Fiat?

I wanted to ask Laura Soave, the Fiat North America honcho. Except she just got fired.

I wonder why.…

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.