Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

VW, Fiat and the American Car Buyer

When you travel overseas as much as I do and you cover the auto industry, you get used to hearing certain things. One of them is the rhetorical question: When are VW and Fiat going to tap their potential in the U.S.

After all, these two European brands are leaders around the world with VW especially strong in Europe and China while Fiat is powerful in Europe and South America. But here in the U.S? Forget about it.

But in the summer of 2011, both are showing signs of life in North America. Today, Fiat is launching a marketing campaign in the U.S. As its new 500 model slowly, but steadily rolls into more showrooms across the country. Meanwhile, VW has announced it will add a second shift at its new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That plant is still ramping up production.

Separately, the news from these auto makers is not huge. Still, they show the optimism both companies have in their ability to finally grow sales in North America.

For years, they have struggled here either because of poor quality (Fiat in 70's) or a lack of models designed to win over American car buyers (Volkswagen in the 90's and early 2000's). In short they either wrote off trying in the U.S. or did it half heartedly.

This time, VW and Fiat are making wiser decisions, and taking measured steps. Fiat dealerships are understated and being added prudently. Meanwhile, VW under John Browning is finally listening to what American car buyers want instead of trying to arrogantly act like they knew what was best (as they did not long ago).

Baby steps, but important steps. For two companies that have been leaders around the world, moving in a measured and smarter way may be the key to finally winning in the states.


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