The Detroit News reports that Fiat has been having trouble Stateside, with dealers now permitted to sell the cars alongside Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram instead of at stand-alone showrooms.
It’s been worrying seeing Fiat’s plans unfold since it decided to take control of Chrysler, a firm that was once the darling of the US car industry, with its industry-leading R&D times, to one that was starved of investment in the 2000s.
Those initial plans, sold as a long-term strategy, turned out to be a short-term Band-Aid. With hindsight, maybe it wasn’t too much of a surprise, since Fiat was still grappling with understanding just what it was taking on.
Fiat needed to do something given that things at home weren’t looking too good, with a model range that wasn’t very cohesive, and with its entries into the Chinese market having faltered a few times. To the casual observer, Fiat saved Chrysler, but there’s some truth in saying that having the company that controls the Jeep brand was a lifeline to Fiat itself.
What we’ve seen since those days was the failure of the strategy of twinning Chrysler and Lancia. While this was a marriage of convenience, I could see this having some long-term gains with Lancia focusing on smaller cars and Chrysler on larger ones, but the result in 2016 is that Lancia has been reduced to an Italy-only marque, the equivalent of what Autobianchi was a few decades ago. Once the Ypsilon is deleted, then Lancia is consigned to the history books.
The winner has been Alfa Romeo. It has only just returned to the junior executive segment with the new Giulia, after an absence of several years, and its 4C is a cracking sports car. Things are looking up, and rumours that Alfa and Dodge would be paired up in the same way Lancia and Chrysler were mercifully haven’t come true. The Giulia platform could be used for future models. Jeep has benefited from Fiat platforms, and Ram has gained some Fiat vans.
But the parent brand, Fiat, has looked very uncertain for a while.
For a start, there’s little uniformity globally. Fiat has the opportunity to offer the Viaggio and Ottimo in more places than China, slotting above the Ægea, for example. While having unique models for South America makes some sense, because of Fiat’s strength there, there’s an opportunity to globalize, with the Toro pick-up truck looking very appealing.
Without having more of its self-developed products, the Fiat range in Europe doesn’t inspire too much confidence. While most manufacturers have one or two joint-venture models, Fiat’s range is almost exclusively made up of vehicles that have shared tech. The famous 500 and Panda are on a Fiat platform which has Chrysler input (before the takeover), and is shared with Ford for its B420 Ka. The Punto, 500X and 500L are on another platform shared with GM. The Doblò is also offered to GM. The Qubo is the product of a joint venture with Peugeot. The Freemont is a rebadged Dodge Journey from México, which Fiat gained after the takeover. The 124 Spider is based on the Mazda MX-5, and built in Japan by that firm. The Fullback pick-up is a Mitsubishi Triton twin and made in Thailand by that Japanese firm.
Fiat, in other words, is holding down more relationships than Casanova.
As a casual observer, there’s an opportunity for a massive streamlining of platforms, and offer more in-house models. That may well be happening, and let’s hope its current strategy is more long-term than its last.
Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Fiat hasn’t had a great reputation of being able to carry out long-term sales’ strategies in many of its markets. Take New Zealand, for example, where Fiat was offering its (Grande) Punto and Bravo models, before it decided to pull everything and offer only the 500.
The Punto has returned after a hiatus, this time as a budget model, along with the Tipo 139 Panda, but those who bought Puntos in the 2000s might think twice about returning to a company that abandoned them and offered no direct replacement for their car when it came to trading up.
That lack of continuity could have some buyers worried, and Fiat needs to regain their trust in a big way.
Being the Five Hundred Car Company, which Fiat certainly was in the US, cannot help, if buyers expect Fiat to offer more. We’ve seen it fail here, and Fiat’s had to back-track. Even in Hong Kong, where Fiat had also been reduced to flogging only the 500, it has had to add the Freemont.
Fiat will argue that as it had been absent from North America for so long, it could re-enter the market-place with a single, fashionable model: after all, Mini and Smart have done.
The trouble is that Fiat isn’t known as a niche brand: there was enough in the US media to indicate that this was an Italian giant, and the perception of such a large company didn’t gel with it offering a niche range anywhere. It lacked the cachet of a brand that was created to be fashionable and funky from the outset. You just can’t do it when that’s the name of the owner (think: can you sell “cool” cars with GM as the brand—that had been tried in New Zealand and failed dismally; or, going back a generation, Leyland? Volkswagen surely is the sole exception with its Beetle), and FCA, which the parent company is called, isn’t a consumer-facing brand. It’s just a company name with no brand equity.
In the same vein, average punters might not know of BMW’s connection with Mini, or Daimler AG’s connection with Smart. They stand alone with plenty of brand equity, helped by identifiable products, and, in Mini’s case, even helped by its image outside North America.
I also question whether the 500X and 500L are cute cars in the same vein as the original 500. Getting Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander character to advertise the 500X seemed good in theory—till it dawned on the public that the new Zoolander film was a bit naff, cashing in on last-decade nostalgia. I’m not a fan of retro design, either, and I would have hoped that Fiat would have renewed its 500 by now, since we’re on to newer versions of the Beetle, Mini, and Smart. It’s no surprise that Fiat sales are down 14·6 per cent so far this year.
If Toyota could not sustain Scion with all its muscle, then Fiat retail really should be integrated into dealerships selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram Stateside. And I’d argue that Scion couldn’t remain because the brand had lost its coolness among the college kids who bought the XB in the first place. Buyers in this consumerist game, and at the fashion end it is more a game than in any other, are notoriously fickle.
I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Fiat’s a brand I’ve grown up with, and I’ve been visiting their dealerships since I was two years old. Back in the 1970s the showroom in Homantin, Kowloon had everything from 127s to 130s. Fiat was doing a brisk trade on 124s. I came close to buying various Fiat Group cars over the years, including a Tipo and a Lancia Delta, and more recently I had considered Alfa Romeo Mitos and Giuliettas. I briefly toyed with importing a Tipo 844 Lancia Delta from the UK badged as a Chrysler, but decided having a $75 1:43-scale one was enough.
To see Lancia decimated and now on life support as Fiat concentrated on making Chrysler and Dodge work, to see the home brand filled with other people’s products in the interim, and to receive news that US buyers weren’t flocking to its showrooms in the same numbers any more, all make me concerned. Go to Italy and the taxi ranks no longer are dominated by Fiat Group cars: the cabbies have gone French and German. It’s all very well Maserati and Ferrari doing well but the former’s volumes won’t have a huge impact, while the latter has been separated and now has a different parent. The only continent where I think Fiat is making a decent bash of things is South America. I don’t want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture, not least because I have fondness for all the brands that now fall under the Fiat umbrella. But the weaknesses, at least to an outsider looking in, outnumber the strengths. My gut says Fiat will work through it all, but will it do it in a fast enough fashion, or is there more pain to come?