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Fiat U.S. CEO Bullish on 500's Debut

“We’re still pretty confident we’re going to achieve 50,000 units for America” annually, Soave said, once consumers have adopted the 500. To begin building toward that number, Fiat has announced a network of urban Chrysler dealers, who will have a mini showroom inside their main showroom for the 500. Those showrooms will be “a very simple, modern design space that has a design center,” she said.

According to Soave, the top four markets are expected to be New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, in that order. Given that urban strategy, you might think Fiat is targeting young buyers for the 500. You’d be one-third right.

“The first-time buyers love it because it’s new; it’s different,” Soave said. “Then you’ve got our enthusiasts, who for 27 years have been rebuilding their Fiats, trying to find parts, keeping the brand alive.

“They’re excited to find something new,” she said. Those two groups aren’t alone.

“You’ve got this gamut in between who find it appealing,” she said. That includes urban folks such as “people who appreciate Italian design: the artist class, the creative class.”

Despite all the excitement about the 500 among younger buyers and the Fiat enthusiasts in this country, the automaker is not well-known in Europe for its reliability. That’s a problem Chrysler shares in this country. However, Soave isn’t worried. “We have a ton of confidence in the quality,” she said.

As part of a strategy to fight the perception that reliability is poor, Fiat is going to include three years of free maintenance with each 500. On top of a MSRP reported to start around $15,500 that could be enough to get plenty of consumers to give the Mini Cooper competitor a shot.

Speaking of the Cooper, Soave said Fiat is looking to follow Mini’s lead when it comes to customization for consumers.

“I think the accessorization plan is huge,” she said. “The personalization is something that customers want.”

The design centers inside the dealership will be a lot like the ones you’d find in a new subdivision, with lots of choices. “Those are all of the different 14 interiors, exteriors,” Soave said, “but you can mix and match, and that’s part of the deal.” Unlike the real estate approach, she said, these design centers are not strictly up-sell areas. Depending on the shopper, though, they can be.

While the 500 has proved to be popular in Europe (“award-winning, unbelievably popular,” Soave said. “Sold in over 80 countries.”), it still needed to be tweaked for U.S. drivers.

“We couldn’t just take a car as-is. There’s been a lot of adaptation,” she said. “We did a few things differently to meet safety regulations.” But it wasn’t all driven by federal regulations. The Fiat team also focused on the seats – “[Americans] prefer softer cushions” – and crafted a new six-speed automatic transmission targeted at U.S. drivers. In Europe, many prefer a manual transmission, but U.S. drivers largely don’t.

Fiat, and by extension Chrysler, sees 2011 as the year of the 500 in the U.S. What does Soave hope to deal with a year from now?

“I want to be figuring out how to get more capacity out of our plant,” she smiled, “because I can’t keep up with demand.”

Kelsey Mays contributed to this report.

 
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