The launch of the Fiat 500 didn't go as smoothly as some had hoped.
First, Chrysler dealers had to build special showrooms for the new model, since CEO Sergio Marchionne didn't want Fiats sold alongside other Chrysler brands. That slowed the rollout process.
Then came the ads, featuring spokesmodel Jennifer Lopez. They raised brand awareness to be sure, but some of us found them a little confusing.
Add all that up, and you had a recipe for less than stellar sales.
A DELICATE BALANCE
Despite those missteps, recent reports indicate that Fiat's situation has improved. The base 500 is selling well, as are its Cabrio and performance-oriented Abarth cousins.
That's due to some smart product development on Fiat's part. As the brand's North American president, Tim Kuniskis, tells WardsAuto, Fiat's U.S. sales are fairly evenly split between women and men. Here, 45% of Fiat buyers are women -- a far cry from Europe, where women account for a whopping 75% of small car purchases. (Even in America, some smaller cars rely heavily on female buyers.)
But not all Fiat products play equally well with men and women. While many female shoppers are attracted to the base 500 and the Cabrio, men account for 80% of Abarth sales.
The balance that Fiat has achieved is pretty remarkable, but can Marchionne & Co. sustain it?
CURVES IN THE ROAD
Fiat will soon bring the 500L to the U.S. -- a car that has elsewhere been pitched to moms. The Abarth Cabrio will also debut in the next few weeks, and it, too, will be targeted heavily to female shoppers, since convertibles have a history of faring well with women.
Now comes word that Fiat is planning an automatic transmission for Abarth models, and that, according to Kuniskis, is going to bring significantly more female buyers to the performance model. (Note: although many women of our acquaintance are a-okay with stick-shifts, automatic transmissions were initially pitched as "simpler" options for female drivers. That sexist way of thinking took hold in pop culture and never really let go.)
The question then becomes: will Fiat's new products tip the scales entirely toward women? Apart from the Abarth model, what is Fiat doing to keep male shoppers in the fold?
Women: we'd love to know your feelings on automatic vs. manual transmissions -- and convertibles, too. Men: we'd be interested to hear about which, if any of the Fiat models appeal to you. Share your thoughts in the comments below.
[h/t Joel Feder]