Fiat Trims Prices, Adds Features to Fight Tiny-Car Bias in U.S.

(Bloomberg) -- After a rough 2016 for small cars in the U.S., Italy’s puckish Fiat brand is resetting itself for the 2017 model year with lower prices, more content and simpler packages of features within each offering.

Fiat is cutting prices in the U.S. by 5 percent to 10 percent on many vehicles, based on examples provided by the unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. The mid-range version of the 500L, dubbed Trekking, will cost only about 1 percent less but will come packed with previously expensive extras -- heated leather seats, a premium BeatsAudio sound system and a 6.5-inch touchscreen with navigation.

Fiat Trims Prices, Adds Features to Fight Tiny-Car Bias in U.S.

Fiat 500

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A key step has been simplifying the offerings: Each 2017 model will have three packages, or trim levels, instead of as many as 10 on the outgoing 500, said Bob Broderdorf, the brand’s North America director. “Think about that experience online,” he said. “Think about it in a showroom. Think about what customers go through. And if you’re new to this, you get frustrated” and might stray to another brand.

Fiat Trims Prices, Adds Features to Fight Tiny-Car Bias in U.S.

Fiat has had to adapt to a demographic shift among its customers as well as the market’s seemingly permanent preference for light trucks. When the brand returned to the U.S. five years ago, it appealed primarily to well-traveled baby boomers, and its lone, little model had to span as many needs as possible. Now the line includes a wagon, a roadster and a subcompact crossover. And as some of the newness and nostalgia has worn off, Fiat is selling to younger consumers who are looking for something fun to drive that won’t wipe out their budget.

Millennials and Generation X account for 45 percent of the brand’s customers, the company said, and the average buyer’s age is 49 -- half a decade younger than for the industry as a whole.

Mismatched Lineup

In the U.S. auto market, sales of light trucks -- pickups, vans and sport utility vehicles -- have outnumbered cars by 3-to-2 in recent months. That presents a challenge for brands like Fiat specializing in smaller models. Fiat’s volume sagged 17 percent to 22,078 vehicles this year through August, more than double the 8.4 percent decline in car sales in the truck-loving, near-record U.S. vehicle market.

“They don’t have the right lineup for the current American consumer,” Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with car-shopping website, said in an e-mail interview. “For the past three years, light trucks have outsold cars and we’ve seen small-car market share on a downward spiral.”

The shift away from traditional cars is more than just a fashion trend amid relatively cheap gasoline prices, Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne said in January. He said the automaker would stop producing the Dodge Dart compact car and the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan to free up factory space for more Jeep SUVs and Ram trucks.

Three-Pronged Approach

Each Fiat model has an entry level called Pop. The 500 Pop for 2017 starts at $14,995, more than $1,000 less than its original price in 2011. The Lounge edition’s price was cut by $2,000 to $18,395 and the racy Abarth version will be $2,580 less, starting at $19,995. A cabrio top is available as a $1,495 option for the 500.

A similar three-pronged approach was taken with the other models, Broderdorf said.

Josh Towbin, 41, a Fiat dealer in Las Vegas, had no complaints with the previous lineup, but he said he’s excited about the 2017 model year.

“It’s kind of surreal for me, to be honest, being here from the inception of the brand, when we just had that one car,” he said in a telephone interview. Streamlining each model’s offering should make it “easier for stocking and promoting and making sure that we have the right stuff. It makes it easier for the guest.”