Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Italians Are Coming Back to America - 2012 Fiat 500 Is Unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show

By Alan Gell

It can't be much "newer" than this one - the Fiat 500 which will be a 2012 model and not available until next year. It was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week and I was lucky enough to have a front row seat during the press conference. During the two day media frenzy, this press conference and unveiling probably received the most attention of all the events.

After some loud music and swirling spotlights, a small, red 1957 Fiat 500 drove onto the stage. A very attractive lady got out of the car. Attractive females and shiny automobiles have always been a part of car shows. But it became instantly obvious that this was not a typical female model or product specialist employee. This was Laura Soave, the Chief Executive for Fiat North America.

Soave has been with the North American Volkswagen team for several years, but Fiat recently hired her to take control of the brand in the United States. She is a first-generation Italian-American with a lot of her family still in Italy. She commented, "This is not just a job for me, it is a passion and very near and dear to my heart." She showed a photo on the large screen, of her as a small girl standing on the hood of a Fiat back in Italy.

The 2012 Fiat 500 will be called a Cinquecento and will compete directly against the Mini-Cooper and other small cars. Besides looking very cute, the anticipated price of $15,500 attracts a lot of attention. The Cinquecento will have a six speed automatic transmission for the North American market. Standard shift is all that is available in Europe. The styling and overall looks will remain true to the Fiat heritage and Soave is almost passionate about that. Her sense of duty to Fiat was obvious throughout her talk. "My job is to protect the Fiat brand and keep it consistent around the world," she said.

The Fiat 500 Cinquecento will retain the European names for the three trim levels - Pop, Sport, and Lounge. Each of these models was driven onto the stage during the press introduction. There are 14 exterior colors and 14 interior colors, and these will all have Italian names. This was Soave's idea also. "I renamed all our colors in Italian to distinguish ourselves more and have more Italian-ness in the brand," she commented. For example, red will be called "roso."

The exterior styling is basically unchanged from the past few years of the European model. Like the Mini-Cooper, it is considered "retro" and looks very similar to the little 1957 model that opened the press conference. Changes that are not obvious to the eye are abundant, however. These include a redesigned body structure that meets American regulatory requirements for crashworthiness. The cabin is quieter, in response to US customers demand for quietness. The floor, trunk, and instrument include new sound-deadening materials. There are new body and door seals as well as hydraulic powertrain mounts that help minimize engine vibrations.

Doug Betts is Chrysler Group's Senior Vice-President and very involved with the Fiat 500 introduction. He said, "The Fiat 500 is an excellent package to start with. As we enhanced it to match North American driving conditions and consumer expectations, we also made sure to preserve the world-class, fit-and-finish standards achieved by Fiat's development team."

The Fiat 500 is powered by a 1.4 liter MultiAir engine that is considered highly efficient. There are new four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, a revised electronic stability control system, and a redesigned twist-beam rear suspension feature.

The Fiat 500 is creating a lot of excitement among journalists and I look forward to a test drive sometime next year. Because Fiat has been out of the American market for about 15 years, it will take some adjustments. With the purchase of Chrysler Group by Fiat, the obvious solution will be to initially merge the two. Chrysler is currently identifying major dealerships which will offer the Fiat 500 for sale. It will available early next year.

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