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Fiat gears up to wash away the past

The Fiat 500 makes its debut in the United States in December. The company sees it as competition for the Mini Cooper.

Fiat

The Fiat 500 makes its debut in the United States in December. The company sees it as competition for the Mini Cooper.

ORLANDO — Italian automaker Fiat is recruiting dealers to sell its products in 41 states, beginning with the Fiat 500 in December and a convertible version that will follow in 2011.

Current Chrysler dealers will have "preference," said Chrysler in a statement, over other dealers who want to sell Fiats. Ralph Kisiel, a Chrysler spokesman handling Fiat-related inquiries, said the company hopes to have at least 200 dealers identified by the end of September.

The industry publication Automotive News says its sources suggest that Fiat hopes to sell 50,000 cars to 100,000 cars in the United States in 2011. A Chrysler spokesman would not comment on sales forecasts.

Fiat's last unofficial presence in the American marketplace was in 1992 — a presence the company would like to forget — when Yugo pulled out. The Yugo was based on an already-dated Fiat 128 platform but built in Yugoslavia by Zastava, not Fiat.

Fiat recently held a meeting to reveal information to prospective dealers. The company is insisting that separate facilities be used as Fiat showrooms, perhaps an optimistic request in a period of sagging car sales. Fiat wants a separate, trained sales staff; the company doesn't want Fiats mixed with Dodges and Jeeps and Chryslers. It must be, Fiat says, a distinct brand.

The first Fiat model to be sold here in nearly 30 years will be the 500, a Mini Cooper competitor that will be built in Toluca, Mexico, where the just-discontinued Chrysler PT Cruiser was built. Power will come from a 1.4-liter, 100-horsepower four-cylinder engine that will be built in a modern Chrysler plant in Michigan. A convertible version is expected to arrive as a 2012 model, followed soon by an electric version and then a small four-door sedan.

Larger Fiat vehicles could eventually be available — such as a variation on the company's current Doblo van, as well as Lancia and Alfa Romeo products, because those brands fall under the Fiat umbrella, as do Ferrari and Maserati.

One of the problems Fiat must overcome is the memory of the company's last sales venture here. Most of its products were fun to drive, such as the 124 convertible and the tiny, midengine X1-9. But they were prone to rust, complicated and often expensive to repair.

No longer, said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for TrueCar, a California-based auto-information service.

"Fiat is a dominant brand in Europe and in many other countries," he said. "Anyone fearful that Fiat's return to the U.S. will be another Yugo-like fiasco has it wrong. In fact, I think it's a real opportunity for the Chrysler dealers selected to sell the brand. I see nothing but positives."

Eventually, though, even Chrysler dealers who don't sign on to sell the Fiat brand will almost certainly be selling Fiat products. The current Dodge Caliber, Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring will likely be replaced in the next five years by Fiat-designed vehicles, while Dodge and Chrysler will likely be left to handle the design and manufacture of trucks, sport-utes, larger minivans and larger Jeep products.

"Fiat is a very well-respected manufacturer most everywhere except in the U.S.," Toprak said. The new Fiats, he said, "are nothing like the ones sold here before."

Fiat gears up to wash away the past 08/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 5:30am]

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