Fiat is turbocharging its little 500 coupe and convertible models for 2019 and, in the process, hoping to give the entire brand a big boost.
For the coming model year, all Fiat 500s will be powered by turbocharged engines, starting with the base car that will now feature a 1.4-liter Multi-Air inline-four making 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque.
Set to roll into U.S. showrooms early in the second-quarter, Fiat has yet to announce pricing, but “We believe the new Fiat 500 will be the most affordable turbocharged model in America,” said brand boss Matt McAlear, during a preview of the updated minicar at the Chicago Auto Show.
The 2019 coupe and convertible models will also get updated front and rear fascias, standard front fog lights, new 16-inch wheels and tires, a sport-tuned suspension, a standard backup camera and a 5.4-inch touchscreen. Options will include high-performance brakes.
The base model will use a single turbo and twin intercoolers. Of course, there’s also the top-line turbocharged Fiat 500 Abarth line for those who want maximum performance from their minicar.
But Fiat clearly needs to turbocharge its entire brand. Since it returned to the U.S. market, early in the decade after a long absence, things haven’t gone nearly as well as parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had hoped. Fiat was slow to roll out its dealer network and, now, even with 400 retail points, the brand appears to be going nowhere but down.
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Last year saw sales dip 19%, to a mere 26,492. For December, the decline turned into a rout, falling 33% compared to the year before. Only one model, the Spider convertible, was up in 2017 – and then really only because it came to market in mid-2016. The 500 line was off 18% last year, and 53% in December alone.
The decline is not entirely surprising, according to industry analysts, considering the U.S. market has gone crazy for light trucks, SUVs and CUVs in particular. Sales of passenger cars have plunged, with small, fuel-efficient models taking some of the biggest hits.
But Fiat had hoped to shore things up by launching two crossover entries: the 500L people-mover and the 500X crossover-utility vehicle – both sharing largely the same underlying platform as the new Jeep Renegade.
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The strategy hasn’t helped. The 500L dropped 47% last year, the Italian automaker selling a grand total of just 1,664 for all of 2017. The 500X fared only a bit better, total sales of 7,665 still marking a whopping 35% drop for the year.
During a conversation after the Chicago Auto Show news conference, McAlear tried to put an upbeat spin on a downbeat situation. For one thing, he noted that while Fiat might have a small U.S. owner base, those customers are especially loyal to the brand. So, with the switch to an all-turbo line-up, “We’re trying to give (returning) customers something new to look forward to.”
Longer-term? McAlear stressed that Fiat won’t shift away from its distinctively Italian design language, but he was mum when asked about its broader product strategy, especially newer and, possibly, larger models to take advantage of current market trends.
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All will be revealed in time, he concluded. “There’s a lot we’ll be talking about in our next five-year plan,” which Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne plans to unveil on June 1.