Opinion: 2020 will be the final year for Fiat in the USA

Will fiat leave the US market?
 by Michael Saterfield

I don't know what it is about Fiat that I love so much, perhaps it was growing up watching old movies set in Europe, full of small sporty roadsters and charming city little city cars. But for someone that was just two when Fiat left in the 80s, I have a strange affinity for them. I have owned a lot of vintage Fiats over the years, eight so far by my count. I remember being excited when it was announced that Fiat would be back in the USA, I was one of the first to visit the local dealer once their first handful of cars had arrived. 

As a classic Fiat owner, I was excited since seeing new Fiats on the road. Perhaps would inspire more people to dust off dad's old 850 Spider or fix up their mom's X1/9, I always have believed that more cool old Italian cars on the road is a good thing. I was also hopeful that Fiat's return might prompt other long-gone European brands to return to our shores, sadly it did not.

Things started off pretty good for the little 500, by the second year of sales, Fiat sales were hot on the heels of MINI, surprising considering that Fiat only had one model and MINI had staked out its territory as the premium compact car in America. For 2013 Fiat expanded their model range with the all-new 500L, a disappointing vehicle both in style and performance. It wasn't ugly enough to be quirky and not good enough to be that ugly. I did enjoy a great road trip in a 500L, but outside of its minivan-like storage capabilities, it did have much to offer. Even being the first car in the world to offer a factory available integrated espresso machine as an option wasn't enough to get the 500L off the dealer lots and it even ended up on my list of worst cars of the decade alongside the Mitsubishi Mirage and Ford EcoSport.

Fiat 124 Abarth

Then came the 500X an improvement over the 500L who it would quickly cannibalize what few 500L sales there were and a year later the all-new Mazda-based 124 Spider would be on the market. But even with new vehicle sales in 2017 had fallen by over 20,000 units annually and in 2019 they would fall an additional 65% to just 9,200 in 2019.

In 2018, then Fiat CEO, Sergio Marchionne announced a dynamic five-year for FCA that was heavily focused on Alfa Romeo, Jeep, and Ram brands. The plan also called for a refreshed and electrified Fiat lineup, which did happen with the new all-electric 500 that is not on sale in the USA. Then Peugeot and FCA merged creating the new automotive group Stellantis (which sounds like the name of a blood pressure medication), what the means for the future of FCA is still uncertain. Fiat's exit from the USA makes a lot more sense if their parent company is no longer named after the group's two lowest-performing brands, Fiat and Chrysler. 

By far the biggest indication that Fiat is leaving the US comes from visiting dealership websites across the country, while they still have "Fiat" listed under their brands, they have little to no inventory and there are zero 2021 Fiats to be found. Fiat of Burlingame in the San Francisco Bay Area has one brand new 2019 Fiat 124 listed on their site, Fiat of Tacoma, Washington has less than 30 cars on the lot including a brand new 2018 Fiat 500X. Even Rick Case Fiat of Miami "The Largest Fiat Dealership in the Nation" has no new Fiat inventory listed at all, but they will let you build a 2020 Fiat 124 or 500X, likely so they can pull one from another dealer. While other FCA brands like RAM and Jeep already have 2021 models on dealer lots, Fiat's lack of new inventory is a clear signal that they are winding the brand down.

Classic and Modern Fiat 500

So what killed Fiat?

In my opinion, the brand was doomed from the start, instead of selling the romance of an affordable Italian car that could transport the driver to the Amalfi Coast on their commute home, they tried using the star power of Jennifer Lopez in a commercial which as described by many as the worst commercial of the decade, it didn't really work. The ads by NYC agencies didn't get any better over the years, from "The Italian's are Coming" and "Bad Boys" commercials that were panned for being blatantly sexist, to ads that were made controversial for controversy sake, Fiat never seemed to define itself to US buyers. 

Fiat also introduced products that just weren't right for the US, the 500 was fine, it could go head to head with the MINI, be the fun city car, and the brand's ambassador. But the 124 came far too late to build on the momentum that the 500 had built early on. Instead, the next Fiat was the 500L, it didn't provide an aspirational step up from the 500 buyers who were bringing their 2011 back to trade-in, and the Alfa Romeo which shared many dealerships were too big a financial leap. Even with the 500X Fiat struggled to convert first-time buyers into Fiat loyalists, according to a 2020 study by J.D. Power, Fiat ranked dead last in buyer loyalty for mass-market brands. Just 10.4% of Fiat owners returned to buy another Fiat, which means their customer experience wasn't good, or they just didn't have the right mix of products to retain buyers. 

In my experience, it also didn't seem that the dealers understood the brand or how to tell the Fiat story to new buyers. In my visits to Fiat dealerships, I can't say any of them were good, and while the early "studios" were well designed, the staffing never lived up to expectations. Instead of selling Fiat as a competitor to MINI and building on the brand's heritage and Italian roots, the dealers seemed to be competing against the Kia Rio and Nissan Versa for the title of "cheapest car in the USA." 

Just as an aside, from an automotive enthusiast and a Fiat fan, branding Fiat performance parts under MOPAR was a serious miscalculation considering Abarth was founded as a Fiat performance tuner with an amazing heritage that could have been exploited for marketing. The "MOPAR or NO CAR" brand image is akin to cutting the sleeves off a bespoke Italian suit, it just doesn't work.  

No one from FCA or Stellantis or the Fiat has confirmed my suspicion on the record, but the conversation gets really quiet when the question is asked. With both the 500 and 124 discontinued, unsold 2018, 2019, and 2020 models languishing on dealer lots, and the fact that you cannot build a 2021 model year Fiat on their website, it wouldn't be a surprise to see an announcement from Stellantis that they will be pulling the brand from the US market in Q1 of 2021. Obviously, dealerships will have to keep their service departments open for warranty claims but it's going to be a sad day for Italian car fans in the US.