Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

New Fiat 500 Unveiled in Hot California Market

It’s no surprise Fiat chose this weekend’s  Concorso Italiano in Monterey, California to unveil its new Fiat 500 Turbo. 

Fiat 500 Turbo
Source: Chrysler

The gathering of Italian vehicles is all part of a huge weekend in Monterey anchored by the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach.

While the new Fiat with a price tag under $20,000 will sell for a fraction of the price you’ll find with the other luxury cars displayed in Monterey this weekend, this was the perfect venue to unveil the newest Fiat. (Related: Cutting Back: Wealthy Car Buyers Trading Down.)

California has become the hot market for Fiat since its re-introduction to the U.S. last year. This year, Fiat sales in the Golden State have outpaced their growth in the rest country. 

The Italian brand now has .05 market share in the largest auto market in the U.S. While that market share is a drop in the bucket compared to other brands, there’s no questioning demand for Fiat in California.

That should continue with the new 500 Turbo. It will have 135 horsepower and a 5-speed manual transmission. It won’t quite deliver the performance of the 500 Abarth model but it will have about a third more horsepower than the base 500 edition. The price of $19,500 keeps it under the psychological threshold of $20,000. (Related: An Investment? Wheels May Be Just an Expensive Hobby.)

Why has the Fiat 500 line-up caught on in California? 

Chalk it up to the trio of size, styling and fuel efficiency. Micro-cars are more popular in the Bay Area than other cities around the country. Much of that is due to the space constraints for parking and maneuvering around San Francisco.

The Italian styling of the 500, like the styling of other European brands, is favored by California buyers who have steadily moved away from the Big Three. Remember, more than two out of every three new vehicles sold in California are foreign brands.

Finally, with California having some of the highest gas prices in the country fuel efficiency is a huge selling point.

Which explains why Fiat is targeting California so aggressively. This fall during the L.A. auto show is when Fiat unveils the U.S. version of the 500L model.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau


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