Abarth Fiat 500CEnlarge Photo
A week ago, we told you that Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne was planning to meet potential Fiat dealers and explain his vision of the American Fiat network. Yesterday, the CEO did just that, and he seems to have generated lots of enthusiasm among attendees -- even though other dealers are clearly worried about adding a brand to the Chrysler family, and even though some small car sales seem to be hitting the skids.
Marchionne's meet-up took place yesterday, as 400 Chrysler dealers from around the country flew to Detroit on their own dime to hear Marchionnne lay out the Fiat game plan. Details remain a tad sketchy, but here's what we know for sure:
• Chrysler plans to launch the Fiat network later this year, with 165 dealers spread across 119 U.S. markets.
• Many of those markets will be in California, Florida, and the Northeast -- markets where small cars already do well.
• The majority of Fiat dealerships will be in metropolitan areas.
• Interested dealers have until September 22 to submit their proposals for a Fiat outlet.
• Dealers accepted into the Fiat network will be expected to create a brand-specific showroom for the vehicles -- although at 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, those showrooms will be on the small side.
• The Fiat 500 base model will launch this year, with the cabrio to follow in 2011. Abarth and EV variants will arrive in 2012.
It's also a reasonably good bet that Fiat dealers will be among the first to sell Alfa Romeo vehicles when they arrive stateside in 2012. According to sources familiar with the content of yesterday's meeting, Marchionne has promised seven (!) Alfa models on U.S. lots by 2014.
The Good and the Bad
There's a lot to love about Marchionne's vision. Above all, the Fiat 500 is an iconic car, beloved in many parts of the world. Letting Americans take part in the fun is a great idea.
Also, Chrysler doesn't have anything like the 500 in its lineup. Youthful, peppy, and exciting, the 500 gives Chrysler a weapon to fight the MINI, the Audi A1 (assuming it comes to the U.S.), and other small, customizable rides like the Scion iQ, the Kia Soul, and the Suzuki WRX.
On the other hand, yesterday also brought news of Smart's plummeting sales: in the U.S., fortwo sales are down 70% compared to last year, and the brand is likely to sell fewer than 100,000 units worldwide, compared to last year's 114,000. True, the fortwo microcar is in a slightly different category than the subcompact 500, but the slumping sales don't bode well for the future of small cars in America -- at least while gas is relatively cheap.
Chrysler apparently instructed dealers to steer clear of the media after yesterday's meeting, but the company did manage to whip out its own videocams and lob some softball questions to attendees: