Echo Booming – Haute Hatches
by Dan Sherman
According to product planners, car salesmen and sales data Americans hate hate HATE hatchbacks. If that is the case, why do MINIs, VW GTIs, and Mazda3 hatches seem to fly off dealer lots? There seems to be a dichotomy of data so I decided to ask my peers about the new Fiat 500 in this week’s edition of ECHO BOOMING.
When Fiat announced its purchase/partnership of Chrysler, Italian car enthusiasts rejoiced that affordable products from Italia would be making their return to the U.S.A First batter up is the diminutive, sporty, chic Fiat 500, resembling the legendary 1957-1975 hatchback of the same name. Introduced in 2007 in Europe, the Fiat 500 has been an hit with strong sales and even the 2009 Word Car Design of the Year. The question is, does it make sense here as a contender among the few successful, stylish and expensive hatchbacks (Haute Hatches)? We think that like Eddy Murphy, the Fiat 500’s adjustment may be rough when Coming To America.
While I love hot hatches and impatiently wait for an Abarth, my peers are divided. Many are deeply concerned about hatchback design and safety issues with such a small car, but flashy Gen-Yers love chic, premium cars that come cheap relative to their dream Bimmers.
Based on my unscientific observations, there is a concentration of students at Emory that purchased MINIs and the like, indicating a strong but small design-driven niche from which Fiat will draw its customers. Most young people I quizzed preferred the design of sedans to hatchbacks if given the generic choice of otherwise-identical models. Surprisingly, girls seem more turned off to hatchbacks than guys.
On the other hand, only a handful of my peers have heard of the contemporary Fiat 500, and very few our age know of the legendary original. While the VW New Beetle and MINI Cooper effortlessly piggybacked on the reputation of their foremothers, a Fiat 500 is not retro to American youth—which will present a hurdle for the first year or two after introduction.
Ironically, safety is a top priority of Gen Yers, the same people who feel invincible enough to down 15+ tequila shots in one night and lather/rinse/repeat the very next. Unlike the crowded cities and small streets of Europe, in which the A-segment flaunts its brilliance, United States driving culture is dominated by the interstate. Upon being shown a picture of a Fiat 500, one of my friends commented, “I think I’d sh*t my pants trying to merge onto I-85.”
When I was car shopping 6 months ago, my parents [irrationally] forbade me to get a VW GTI because they felt there wouldn’t be sufficient cushioning if I got rear-ended—a 5-door version of a C-segment car! Even if it were crowned a top safety pick by the IIHS and NHTSA, the 2,300- lb supermini may be blacklisted by parents all across the nation. On the other hand, some parents put a premium on affordability and fuel mileage, as evidenced by kids who drive the Yaris, Versa, and Accent—I could easily see the Fiat 500 purchased as a compromise between such parents and their status-conscious kids.
It seems that flashiness-concerned Gen Yers who can get over the perceived safety issues will willingly fork over $16-20K for this car. The big question, though, is whether this car will be sold as a Fiat or a Chrysler. As the first product in a Chrysler Euro-invasion, my college peers can’t comprehend the 500 alongside huge American 300s. As a Fiat, though, the 500’s evidently European style meshes with the brand—and 20-year olds have no idea that FIAT stands for “Fix It Again, Tony.” In the latter case, I predict a niche much like the MINI’s but with fewer sales and little profit. It will likely build a strong premium brand image for Fiat, allowing the introduction of premium B-, C-, and D-segment cash cows.