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July 31, 2009

News & Features

Old souls: Will the once-popular Fiat find love again upon its return to the U.S.?

Special to NWautos

Fiat 500

The subcompact 500 will be the first Fiat to enter the American market since the 1980s. (Fiat)

Baby boomers may recall seeing Fiats buzzing around local streets back in the '60s and '70s -- the 124 Spider, with its sumptuously graceful lines; the sporty, playful 850 convertible; and the angular, mid-engine X1/9.

The Italian cars were known for their excellent handling as well as their unique body designs. But in the mid-'80s, Fiat abruptly pulled out of the U.S. market, dogged by quality issues, disgruntled dealers and rising competition from Japanese automakers.

Now, having acquired a 35 percent stake in Chrysler, Fiat will be returning to the States within a year or two. What was it that compelled Americans to buy Fiats back in the company's heyday? And will those same traits -- if they're still evident -- lure a new cadre of buyers?

The Cinquecento
  • The first Fiat to arrive in the U.S. will be the 500, known as the Cinquecento, an update of the Italian classic from the 1960s that has been a big hit since its introduction in Europe two years ago.
  • With the 500, Fiat hopes to attract younger, urban drivers. In Europe, the car sells for roughly 9,000 euros ($12,000) on average.
  • Alfa Romeo, part of the Fiat group, also will return to the U.S. with the MiTo, a compact now sold in Europe, as well as the Milano, reviving a name from the 1980s and '90s.
  • --New York Times News Service

Ray Mortensen, owner of Renton auto-repair shop Performance Apex, purchased his first Fiat in 1968. He had to tinker with it so much that he became a fixture at a Fiat dealership, which then invited him to work as a mechanic.

He says that Fiats imported to the U.S. were plagued with reliability issues and that the company didn't support its dealers very well. However, there was something about the cars, with their European styling and sporty handling, that drove people to buy them despite the flaws.

"A lot of people don't like cars whose styling looks like it was squeezed out of a toothpaste tube," Mortensen says. "They want something different."

Fiat will re-enter the U.S. market with the 500 -- named Europe's Car of the Year in 2008 -- and plans to have it in Chrysler dealerships by Christmas 2010. The company is hoping the same combination of design and performance that seduced boomers way back when will attract U.S. buyers now.

Bert Cripe, president of Fiat Enthusiasts Northwest was a 23-year-old Navy electrician in 1973 when he bought his first Fiat -- a 124 Spider. The first thing that caught his eye was the "classic Italian" styling.

"It had those Romantic flares, a really good look to it," he says. "And the driving was 'con gusto,' with a lot of spirit. The Italians really like to drive their cars. Their cars drive well."

When Darsie Brown was a senior at Bellevue High School, her father -- an "Italian car nut" -- gave her strict orders not to buy a Fiat due to its unreliability.

Fiat 124 Spider

Darsie Brown bought her second 124 Spider two years ago. (Scott McCredie)

"I was obsessed with 124 Spiders," Brown says. Now 37, she admits that she defied her father and bought one anyway. A few months later, it broke down and she had to sell it.

Three years ago, her father suffered a debilitating stroke and told her that one of the regrets of his life was not buying the Ferrari he had always wanted. She decided not to put off replacing the car she'd always loved, and the next year bought another 124 Spider.

"This car has soul," Brown says. "It has a real personality and it's all about fun."

What will it take for Fiat to reignite this level of passion in America? Owners say perhaps a little amnesia on the part of boomers who remember Fiat's previous issues, as well as a generous infusion of the celebrated spirit of the past into new models.

"I'm hoping that they still have the character -- the soul -- that sets them apart from other cars," Mortensen says. "The Italians have always been known for avant-garde engineering. If they can keep that up and provide good service, they will do just fine."

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