Doubling down on style and heritage until the future arrives
Fiat doesn’t mind that it’s a niche brand. At least that’s according to Pieter Hogeveen, head marketing executive for Fiat in North America. Since returning Stateside in 2011, Fiat has sold close to 400,000 vehicles. But its annual sales volume has dropped significantly since its reintroduction. That’s mainly due to Fiat only selling small cars and a lack of fresh product. The brand, however, still thinks it can attract new buyers, particularly younger ones. How? By relying on heritage, driving fun, and value.
MotorTrend spoke with Hogeveen at the refreshed 2019 Fiat 500X media drive in Malibu, California, where he outlined the status of Fiat in North America. Even with the Italian marque’s lack of volume, Hogeveen still sees a business case for Fiat in North America. “I think if you take a look at our customers and following, there’s a place for unique vehicles in the U.S. market,” he said. With the 500X, Fiat has an entry in one of the fastest growing segments, the subcompact crossover class, and expects it to make up the bulk of sales as utility vehicle demand continues to grow.
Unlike Mini, Fiat intends to preserve its identity as a small car specialist but remain a mainstream brand so it doesn’t price itself out of its market. “We know price and small cars go hand in hand, and we have to make sure we offer value at every price point,” said Hogeveen. “Fiat has always been a value brand, and moving away from that would not make sense.”
We asked Hogeveen whether we’ll see larger vehicles in Fiat’s lineup, and although he couldn’t comment on future product, we’re suspecting that the 500L and 500X are the biggest it’ll offer. What you can expect are more special editions and packages to keep current offerings interesting. However, there’s a fine line between too much and not enough customizability. “People like customization but if you have too many trims you create confusion,” Hogeveen said. The 500X lineup shrunk down to three trims to make it easier for consumers to get exactly what they want but the extensive exterior and interior color palette remains.
The switch to an all turbocharged engine lineup is part of Fiat’s move to offer more engaging vehicles to drive. The refreshed 2019 500X is the final vehicle to receive the update with the new 1.3-liter turbo-four replacing the old 1.4-liter and naturally aspirated 2.4-liter units. Manual transmissions will likely stay in Fiat’s lineup for the foreseeable future because they make up 50 percent of sales for the 500 and 124 Abarth. Hogeveen also revealed that 40 percent of 124 Spiders sold are Abarths, further justifying the case for fun-to-drive vehicles.
As for what’s next, Hogeveen said Fiat is looking closely at industry trends but declined to comment on North America specifically. At the 2019 Geneva auto show, Fiat debuted the all-electric Centoventi Concept, an EV with four removable batteries and a range of 60-300 miles (97-483 km) on a charge depending on how many you use.
Last June, FCA’s five-year plan outlined Fiat’s electrified future. The lineup will also focus mainly on the 500 and Panda families, and move the brand to a more premium position in the European market. The next Fiat 500 is expected to debut in 2020 as an EV with its own dedicated platform. A second model, which could revive the Giardiniera name, is expected to follow after.For now, Fiat will stay the course in North America until the electrified new-generation models arrive starting in 2020. We suspect the new 1.3-liter turbo-four could be the last gas-only mill before the transition to electrified powertrains. Seeing as that engine is the basis for the Jeep Renegade plug-in, which is tipped to come to North America, we wouldn’t be surprised if that system comes to the North America in the 500X, too.