No one really knew how well the Fiat 500 would sell in the United States. Brand champions, such as Fiat North America head Laura Soave, predicted success, based on the car’s novelty factor and pent-up demand for the Fiat brand in the United States. Escalating fuel prices played into Fiat’s hands as well, since the diminutive 500 gets an EPA estimated 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. It’s size makes it ideal for urban dwellers, as it takes up less room on the street than even a Mini Cooper, which is seven inches longer and two inches wider.
Four months after launch, the Fiat 500 is doing well despite the handicap of limited dealerships and insufficient advertising. There are 70 Fiat dealerships in the United States instead of the planned 130, but Soave is working to expand the dealer network. Ten dealerships are ultimately planned for Texas, since the state has three of the nations top-10 cities in terms of population, and the trend in Texas shows a migration towards cities and away from rural areas. In other words, the sales climate is ideal for a car like the Fiat 500.
Through June, Fiat has sold 4,944 500s in the United States, and is on pace to move between 30,000 and 35,000 units in 2011. What’s surprising is that five-speed manual transmission cars have accounted for nearly 50 percent of sales, possibly due to the reputation of the EU specification automatic gearbox. U.S. cars will get an entirely new six-speed automatic, but that hasn’t kept dealers from ordering up to 70 percent of their inventory with manual transmissions.
Sales of the cabriolet version have also defied predictions. Initial estimates were that open-top 500s would account for 10 percent of sales, but the actual number has varied between 15 and 20 percent. Dealers can’t keep Fiat 500 Cabriolets in stock, and Chrysler is changing production at their Toluca, Mexico, plant to build more convertibles.
Look for a summer advertising blitz on the 500, and look for details to begin leaking on the high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth. If you live near one of the country’s major population centers, expect to see more Fiat dealerships in the coming months as well.