Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Chrysler Group LLC expects to live large when it begins selling the ’12 Fiat 500 minicar in January, says the top executive of Fiat Brand North America.

Laura Soave expects no problem selling the 50,000 units destined for the U.S., Canada and Mexico. A limited run of 500 “Prima Edizione” 500s was sold online in two hours, she says.

“We didn’t (show) a picture; we didn’t give them a price; we didn’t give them features, and they gave us $500 checks,” Soave tells Ward’s here at the L.A. Auto Show where the North American-market model makes its debut.

In addition to a new 6-speed automatic transmission, the car has several features its acclaimed European twin does not, such as:

  • A redesigned body structure for increased strength.
  • A retuned suspension that affords quieter operation during highway driving.
  • Upgraded climate control for North America’s temperature extremes.
  • Armrests for the driver and front passenger.
  • A larger 8.7-gallon (39.7-L) fuel tank.

The car is powered by a 1.4L 4-cyl. engine, but Chrysler has not released estimated fuel-economy ratings.

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and alliance-partner Fiat Automobiles SpA, lauds the homologation effort as “phenomenal” and a “huge step forward” for the two auto makers, whose fortunes were thrown together because of Chrysler’s bankruptcy in 2009.

“It’s the first tangible proof of the (Chrysler-Fiat) collaboration,” Marchionne tells journalists here after Soave rolls out three Fiat 500s to mark the car’s official unveiling.

The 500 will be offered in three trim levels: Pop, Sport and Lounge. Pricing starts with Pop at $15,500. The Sport model benefits from tweaks such as modified springs, recalibrated steering and retuned exhaust. The top-level Lounge offers features ranging from premium leather seating to a Bose sound system.

Items such as cruise-control and a 7-airbag occupant-protection system are standard equipment. Such content is integral to maintaining the high level of interest the car is expected to generate, Soave says.

The 500 will launch in North America as a hatchback. A cabrio will follow in the second quarter, followed in 2012 by an Abarth-branded high-performance version and an all-electric model.

Chrysler has selected 130 dealers to sell the 500. California has the highest concentration, with 17, followed by New York and Florida with 10 each. But nine are in a state more closely associated with pickup trucks – Texas.

“Dallas, Houston and Austin are trend-setting cities,” Soave says, adding they also are among the nation’s fastest-growing communities. She notes the majority” of the limited Prima Edizione models were sold in Los Angeles, New York and Texas.

“People are very early-adopters (in Texas)” she says. “We’re here with a proposition that hasn’t been available in this particular segment.”

While close in size to the Mini Cooper B-car, the 500 qualifies as an A-segment vehicle. The U.S. market currently is home to just one A-segment car, the Smart Fortwo, according to Ward’s segmentation.

The 500 will be assembled at Chrysler’s plant in Toluca, Mexico, where the auto maker also produces the Dodge Journey cross/utility vehicle. In addition, Toluca will send 50,000 units to South America.

The 500’s arrival will mark Fiat’s return to the U.S., where the brand has been absent since 1983. It exited with the dubious distinction of having poor quality, but that memory is faded because “multiple generations” have passed, Soave says.

“Even those who had the vehicles in the past (are) thrilled to have it back,” she adds. “They were something different and unique. And now, we have this amazing new product that has proven itself the last four years.”

Fiat revived the 500 nameplate to critical acclaim in 2007. Since then, more than 500,000 units have been sold in more than 80 countries.

emayne@wardsauto.com