This week we’re visiting with car aficionado Merkel Weiss and his observations of the New 2011 Fiat 500 and a sprinkling of inside information you only hear from auto industry insiders. Frequent readers of this column will recall Professor Weiss taught several of the best auto designers while at Art Center College of Design over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
You may know that Fiat is huge in the rest of the world. I bought a shiny new 124 Spider back in 1969 and we loved it. Fiat has always provided efficient transportation across all of Europe. Under Communism and beyond into Capitalism in Poland after 1992 Fiat seemed to me to be over 50% of every car I saw on the roads from north in Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to Krakow and Bytom in the South of the country. Why, because even back then 50 mpg was common and that little car seated 4 adults. Today Poland is a thriving democracy and I suspect they are driving larger cars as well. Herewith some of the New information and expectations for Fiats re-entrance into the US market from Merkel Weiss.
THE FIAT 500 ENTERS THE WORLD STAGE
I attended the Fiat Gala held at a Chrysler dealership on S. Figueroa near the Los Angeles Convention Center. It was packed with the typical Los Angeles socialite crowd that usually makes me want to run away and hide. But this time was different. I visited with a few in the know friends surrounded by new, Mexican built, pre-production Fiat 500s everywhere. There were people there that actually knew about the car.
Friend Rex was able to speak with factory reps who said that, contrary to what we had
been led to understand in the automotive press, there were a few things done to the
European car to “Americanize” it, but the US version is fundamentally unchanged. We got some
new cupholders along with reinforced bumpers that add a little more to the overall length. But the good news is that although it may well sit on softer springs, this car is still very much the car we were all hoping it would be. It’s lovely.
The Fiat 500 is a completely modern little car that is about as charming and Italian as anyone could have hoped for. It was designed by Frank Stephanson (stef-an-sun), the very same guy who designed the Mini Cooper when he was at BMW. He also did some good work at Ferrari as well.
The new Fiat 500 is a nicely constructed car. The paint and panel gaps are all very
respectable and the interior is charming. Seating is good in front but rear seating is another story. Short rides would be ok back there but forget long trips. Rear head room is severely compromised.
There is no word yet on the US introduction of the diesel engine. The turbocharged engine will allegedly make its appearance in the Abarth model. There will also be a roll back roof convertible, and a 4-door wagon type, reminiscent of the old 500 Giardinera.
As I was leaving the event I ran into the head of Fiat, Sergio Marchionne. He was speaking softly to a small crowd of journalists who were taking notes on small tablets. I walked up and stood there silently when someone said: “Mr. Marchionne, what do you think of the new GM IPO?” Everyone looked confused for a second and I instinctively blurted out the price was initially $24 but is now pushing well over $30. Marchionne turned to me and I instinctively reached over to shake his hand and introduced myself. I spent a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation with this very savvy guy.
Marchionne is frank and open with his observations and has been quoted in the Italian press that he says Italian factories are underperforming, especially the Sicilian one, producing only a small fraction of the efficient production of their Polish facility. He said the Italian auto workers union needs to make some serious adjustments to their contract. He has further stated that Fiat would do way better financially without Italian plants. I’m confident he was using the Italian plant closure threat as ammunition to get his stalled labor agenda moving again. Italian politicians, clearly labor supporters, jumped down his throat claiming that he spoke as a Canadian (which he is) as opposed to an Italian.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Volkswagen led by Engr. Dr. Ferdinand Piech, grandson of the great Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, indicated VW would like to purchase Alfa Romeo, and he would be patient in that quest. Marchionne, however, announced recently that Alfa is not for sale and in fact they will produce a whole new line of Alfas to be sold as Chryslers and some Chryslers will be sold in Europe as Lancias.
Piech’s exploits are nothing short of amazing and his conquest of Porsche was simply epic. They already own Bugatti, Lamborghini, and others, totaling some 13 companies in all. He also said he will pass Toyota in sales and be the #1 car company in the world. And VW has begun to do exactly that.
In further developments, Ferrari will offer an IPO of its own shortly. One can only imagine the feeding frenzy on that one. I don’t want to say, so much for Alfa Romeo not going to Volkswagen, because Ferdinand Piech is about as clever as clever gets. In the past, whatever he has wanted, he has eventually gotten, from small companies like Skoda to large ones like Porsche.
So there we are. Given a background of the free world economy just hanging on
with no real recovery in sight, and the Italian labor situation on the edge of major disaster, up walks a quiet Canadian Marchionne with the Fiat 500 that is met with great reviews and promise of moving Fiat into even more profitable years ahead.
1.4 liter 16v 94 horsepower 4-cylinder engine, 6 speed manual transmission, 15” steel wheels, 4-wheel ABS disc brakes with electronic brake distribution, air conditioning, power windows & locks with keyless entry, audio with CD/MP3, front and side and side curtain airbags, traction control & stability control, 50/50 split folding rear seat, tilt steering column, two 12 v dc power outlets, rear window washer wiper / defroster, cruise control & power heated mirrors.
$3.17/ Gal avg. Dec 14, 2010
for more information.
35 City and 45 Highway MPG
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