6:00 am Saturday, last October. My son Josh and I are boarding a Southwest flight at Baltimore Washington International Airport for a one-way trip to Memphis via Dallas. I’m bleary-eyed because my flight home from San Francisco Friday night arrived late. I’m operating on less than two hours of sleep.
Flashback to eight days ago. My wife Debbie and I are enjoying a pleasant afternoon strolling along the canals of Venice Beach, California. Really – it has beautiful canals. My phone rings and it’s a Fiat dealer in Memphis calling back in response to an email I’d sent them the night before. Betty, the salesperson, asks what I’m interested in with her friendly Southern accent. She’s a little taken aback when I respond with a serial number for one specific car and tell her I want to close the deal before I hang up.
I fly weekly so a little turbulence doesn’t bother me, but descending into Dallas the severe weather moving through Texas is providing quite the thrill ride. We land safely, of course, and after a quick breakfast hop on our connecting flight to Memphis. By 11:30 am we’re at the dealer in Memphis. An hour later Josh and I begin the 830-mile drive home in our brand new Fiat 500L. Our route through Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and finally back to Maryland is largely rural and quite lovely on this Fall day. Seventeen hours later, with only a couple of stops to nap, we’re back home.
If you’re not familiar with the Fiat 500L you’re not alone. Including the one I bought, Fiat sold 293 500L’s that October. That’s only 34,488 less than the number of Toyota Camrys sold the same month. In the words of David Byrne and Talking Heads, “Well, how did we get here?” Why was I purchasing a Fiat and, more importantly, why was no one else? Why was Fiat’s US comeback failing so spectacularly?
Let’s answer the easy question first, why a Fiat for me and a 500L at that? If you, faithful CC reader, have sampled only a handful of the first fifteen weeks of this COAL (and thankfully for all concerned this is the last!) the question answers itself on multiple levels. Yes, I owned a couple of Fiat 124 Spiders back in the day. More to the point, though, if a car is funky, under-powered, under-loved and generally ignored by most Americans it will make my short list of cars to buy. Let’s not forget this, that or the other.
The Fiat 500L (with the ‘L’ standing for both Large and Lounge) is Fiat’s ‘big’ offering in North America. It’s 23” longer than the diminutive 500. Depending on your point of view the 500L is either an MPV, a crossover, a five-door hatchback or, my preference, a small but tall wagon. Despite its nomenclature, the 500L is not based on the Fiat 500. Instead, it shares its underpinnings with the slightly larger Fiat Punto which is not sold in North America as well as some Opels (more on this General Motors connection later).
Heritage is everything. When you hear Porsche you think “Stuttgart”. Ferrari, Maranello. Yugo? That’s right, the 500L is assembled in Serbia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, at the same factory where the infamous Yugo was made before notoriously poor quality and the brutality of the Yugoslav wars brought that endeavor to an end in the early 1990s.
I was attracted to the 500L by its roominess. My wife and I had been doing a lot of biking the past few months and noticed that transporting two bikes was challenging (but possible!) in the back of my MX-3 or her TT. When we wanted to take the tandem, though, we had to borrow the Subie wagon from our son Josh. For a small car the 500L has loads of room. In the front there are upright seats and plenty of elbow room. The second row sits slightly higher to give its occupants a good view and the leg room is generous.
When you really need to haul stuff the rear seats fold flat or tilt forward.
No one would say the interior of the Fiat is plain. Despite rather pedestrian materials, it screams Italian with its seemingly oversized steering wheel, climate control knobs and shifter.
The thing that really makes the interior stand out, though, are the see through A-pillars which in my mind are reminiscent of the view from the cockpit of a Boeing 737 (If the cockpit of the 737 had been designed by Italians). Combined with the optional full-length moonroof in my 500L the view from the interior becomes almost epic in its scope.
My 500L is actually a three pedal six-speed manual in Verde Bosco Perla (Forest Green Pearl) and therein lies the tale. Searching for just the right car I went to the ‘Build a Car’ page on the Fiat website. I wanted the Urbana Trekking trim level which, per the marketing people, combines the outdoor adventure look of the Trekking edition with the matt black trim and wheels one needs to survive in the urban concrete jungle. Go figure. The addition of the moonroof sealed the deal. “Click here to find your car”, I was told. With the manual transmission a “must have” for me, there was nothing nearby. Expanding my search nationwide there was one car that was an exact match and nothing else that even came close. Memphis.
One other thing I noticed was that there was a nationwide inventory of almost 2,200 500L’s – a seven- and-a-half-month-inventory based on the car’s tepid monthly sales – not a good sign for Fiat as anything above two months is considered high. But before we go down that road what’s the 500L like to drive?
It turns out the drive is perfectly fine. Although it uses the same turbocharged 1.4-liter 160 horsepower engine found in the 500 Abarth, the 500L’s larger size, toaster shape and greater weight dictate acceleration that is adequate for daily driving but will never be mistaken for being in performance territory. You end up shifting a lot which is fun if you’re climbing a two lane twisting road in Vermont but a little annoying if you’re on a freeway and heavy traffic is yo-yoing the prevailing speed between 55 mph and 75 mph.
Handling is a similar story. At moderate speeds it entertains, but under “moose test” conditions the Fiat will give you a passing grade, but with just enough of a kick to raise your eyebrows a tad.
Nonetheless, the Fiat has become the default go-to car for Debbie and me. Its comfort and space, and the view, make long trips a pleasure. In six months we’ve managed to rack up just over 8,000 miles with several long trips besides the car’s maiden Memphis marathon.
But what of Fiat? Can it succeed in North America? And what of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)? How long before Chrysler once more finds itself on the ropes and for sale?
Honestly, the Fiat brand wasn’t really that successful the first time around. Yes, we car guys of a certain temperament and age fondly remember the 124 spider, the X 1/9 and the original Fiat 500, but Fiat was a niche player at best on this continent before poor quality caught up with it and forced its withdrawal. Even during those cycles when the US was embracing fuel efficient small cars Fiat could never really compete with the quality and mass market appeal of Toyotas, Datsuns and Hondas. If an automobile manufacturer wants to build a sustaining presence it has to shoot for best of class and Fiat has never done this. With the exception of historical strength in Southern Europe and Brazil Fiat has always played in the relegation zone and that brings us to Sergio Marchionne, the President of FCA.
Marchionne took the helm of Fiat in 2004 at a time when Fiat had lost a third of its European market share in four years. He famously returned the Company to profitability within two years. His secret? At the end of 2004 he forced General Motors to give him $2 billion dollars to settle a messy divorce.
Only four years earlier, General Motors had paid $2.4 billion for a twenty percent stake in Fiat to preempt DaimlerChrysler (Chrysler!) from doing the same. The end game was likely an eventual merger and to assure that GM was a serious suitor Fiat negotiated a ‘prenup’ that would make it expensive for GM to walk away. The planned sharing of technology did not work out although it did result in the development of a shared GM/Fiat small car platform that, yes, underpins my 500L. The $2 billion payout gave Fiat the breathing room it needed to recover and regroup, and Marchionne’s direct management style and decisiveness did the rest in the short term.
An attorney by training, Marchionne is obviously a deft negotiator. In 2009 when Chrysler had fallen into bankruptcy and ownership had defaulted into the hands of the US, Canada and the United Auto Workers he negotiated the purchase of 20% of Chrysler. Over the next several years Fiat gradually bought out these other shareholders until it had 100% ownership in January of 2014.
Marchionne moved rapidly to integrate Fiat and Chrysler. In the US, besides the re-introduction of Fiat, he brought over an Alfa Romeo sedan and rebadged it as a Dodge Dart thus offending both Alfa and Dart fans. The car has proved to be an also ran in its category and after less than two years FCA has pulled the plug on it. In fact, FCA recently announced that they are getting out of the small car business completely and will look to rebadge and sell small cars made by others. Put another way, the company formerly known as Fiat is getting out of the Fiat business. Sure, a small number of us look forward to the stylish return of the new 124 Spider, but we know in our hearts that it’s a Miata with an Abarth engine. My guess is that, despite the extra horsepower of the Abarth engine (My 500L engine), the 124 will suffer in comparison to the less powerful but much more refined Miata powertrain.
The renamed FCA has thrived due largely to the resurgence of Ram trucks and, especially, Jeep SUV’s. High debt and the continued weakness of the Fiat brand has left FCA with inadequate funds as it struggles to develop its next generation of cars. Many fear that FCA is only one mild recession away from bankruptcy.
Marchionne has spent the last couple of years looking for a white night to purchase FCA and has been firmly and publicly rebuffed by everyone he has approached. The lesson for the automotive industry is that you can’t deal your way to being a top tier manufacturer. Success is a long-term journey based on commitment to making World class cars and implementation of a thoughtful strategy on a consistent long-term basis.
And the final affront for those of us who love cars? Ferrari – formerly the crown jewel of Fiat (and a huge money maker). Fiat spun off the fabled marque last year to raise cash. In preparation for the public stock offering Marchionne forced out long time Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo who had made Ferrari the profitable World class brand we’re all familiar with. Marchionne wanted to significantly increase production and Montezemolo believed such a production increase would ultimately dilute the brand. Marchionne needed someone he could trust running Ferrari so he installed himself. Ferrari stock is down 30% since it went public, but Marchionne has an updated plan. He wants to double down and further increase production. Last week the president of Ferrari retired. Once more Marchionne is looking for a top talent to take this number two position. The betting is he will select himself to fill this role as well.
All this turmoil and tribulation assures one thing and one thing only – My little Fiat will continue to be a rarity. Forty years from now, Paul Niedermeyer’s android avatar will be walking down a side street in Portland and will spot a 2015 Fiat 500L behind a chain link fence tucked between a 2025 Googlemobile and a 2031 Apple transit pod. He will engage his image capture function sending an instant notification out to a small cadre of Luddite petro-heads who will immediately flip the switch on their virtual reality implants and follow along as he tells the story of Fiat.
As mentioned above, this is the end of my COAL series. Thanks to all for your comments these past few months, to Paul for creating and cultivating the Curbside Classic community, and to my wife Debbie for playing along with my automotive indulgences all these years.