Following Fiat’s 25-year absence from the North American market, the launch of its 500 small car has been anything but smooth. Delays prevented the Italian automaker from bringing the vehicle to market last month as planned. The company now says that the 500 may begin arriving at U.S. dealerships next month but that the initial wave will not be available with an automatic transmission.
Speaking at the Detroit auto show last week, Laura Soave, the head of Fiat brand operations for North America said, “We will really start to ramp up in March and April.” That’s when shipments of 500s equipped with the Aisin Seiki six-speed transmission will begin arriving. The 500s are being built at Fiat’s manufacturing plant in Toluca, Mexico.
The 500 will only be available through about 20 percent of Fiat-Chrysler’s 130 North American dealerships. Soave said the company plans to grow its U.S. dealer network to include 165 showrooms. She said, “We’ll continue to increase our network through the end of 2012.” She also said the company is considering accepting non-Chrysler dealers who it considers well suited to sell the Fiat brand.
Soave said Chrysler is requiring that the dealers remodel their showroom interiors to comply with its “Fiat Studio” guidelines before they can begin selling the 500s. Even though the remodeling is leading to delays in some cases Soave said, “We’re not making exceptions.”
The first 500s were scheduled to begin appearing in dealer showrooms last month. But a number of dealers now say that they don’t expect to have their showrooms ready before next summer because of the time required to get building permits and complete the required remodeling of their showrooms.
Austin, Texas-based auto dealer Nyle Maxwell plans to begin selling Fiats from a make-shift showroom in a shopping center until he can complete construction of his permanent dealership.
Maxwell said Fiat has been “pretty good to work with.” However, he said, “They’re being very idealistic in what they want. They’re very proud of the brand, and hopefully we’ll be proud of the brand, too.”
Fiat’s first completed U.S. dealership, Motor Village of L.A., is scheduled to open its doors later this month. In addition to Fiats, the dealership will also carry all four of Chrysler’s brands and will be used as a laboratory to test new sales techniques.
Soave said Fiat intends to begin selling the 500s on a market-by-market basis whether dealers are ready or not. She said Fiat has no current plans for a nationwide TV advertising campaign to support sales.
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