Returning to the U.S. after 25 years, Fiat has a reputation to uphold, and another to overcome

Automakers descend on the Washington Convention Center to tout their latest models.
By Danielle Douglas
Monday, January 31, 2011

Amid a sea of glittering chrome and steel, there they were: the new Fiat 500s. A family of five funky, ladybug-shaped sedans, they stood guard in a half-moon display around the towering Fiat tent at this year's Washington Auto Show, which runs through Sunday.

Each car was bathed in rich colors, like "rame" orange or "azzurro" blue, with one vehicle covered in paintings and graffiti. The Italian car company showcased the new models in modish European style, with retro, white lounges nearby and glass display cases housing Fiat brand paraphernalia. And at the center of it all was the predecessor to the modern Fiat 500, the pint-sized 1970s Cinquecento, a nod to the automaker's past, adjacent to examples of its future.

It should come as no surprise that Fiat went all out this year at the auto show, as the company will start rolling out the 500 at Washington area dealerships next month.

The debut will mark Fiat's return to the United States after a 25-year absence from the market. With this move, the company, which helped rescue Chrysler and now holds a 25 percent stake in the automaker, will pull the maker of popular trucks and sport-utility vehicles into the subcompact sector. The question is whether local road warriors will bite.

Fiat faces established rivals and will have to ovecome a past reputation for unreliability.

There are eight Chrysler dealerships in metropolitan Washington, out of 130 across the country, set to carry the Fiat 500: Criswell Fiat of Gaithersburg and Fiat of Glen Burnie, Frederick, College Park, Silver Spring, Alexandria, Tysons Corner and Sterling.

These dealers are creating special Fiat Studios, as the showrooms will be called, featuring full displays of accessories and parts. The individual process of assembling the studios has resulted in a staggered launch schedule, with many dealers looking at an April opening.

Criswell Fiat of Gaithersburg, however, is ahead of the game. Most of its showroom is completed and just last week the demonstration car arrived, said Giles Bibic, the store's Fiat sales manager. He anticipates the extension of Criswell Auto will be up and running at the end of February or the first week in March.

By then, Bibic will have all three editions of the 500 -- the Pop, Sport and Lounge -- on the floor. They climb in price based on finishes and features, with the Pop starting at $15,500, the Sport at $17,500 and the Lounge at $19,500.

Bibic, a former Mini Cooper dealer, said that since he came on board in November, close to two dozen eager Fiat fans in the Washington area have given $500 deposits to reserve the new car.

"The Washington market is definitely more economically and environmentally more conscious," Bibic said. "And [the 500] has high gas mileage, a smaller carbon footprint and is going to do very well."

At this point, more than 1,500 people have expressed interest in the vehicle. "We've got a long wait list," said Laura Soave, head of the Fiat brand in North America. "People are excited and so are we."

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