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Fiat is struggling in the US. Is the Italian brand ready to pull the plug on America, again?

Key Points
  • Fiat debuted its Centoventi concept car for its 120th year anniversary at the Geneva Auto Show this month.
  • It comes at a time when the future of the Fiat brand is coming into question, especially its role in the U.S. market.
The Italian automaker Fiat unveils 'Centoventi' electric concept car during the second press day of the 89th Geneva International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland on March 06, 2019. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Mustafa Yalcin | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Fiat is marking its 120th anniversary with a pint-sized concept car appropriately dubbed the Centoventi, or 120 in Italian.

The prototype that made its debut this month at the Geneva Motor Show is believed to offer a hint of one of the battery-powered production models the brand is working up.

But the debut of the Centoventi, which is even smaller than the familiar Fiat 500, comes at a time when the future of the Fiat brand is coming into question, especially its role in the U.S. market.

After pulling out of the American market in the early 1990s due to poor sales, Fiat staged a comeback in 2011 shortly after the Italian automaker stepped in to save its bankrupt U.S. competitor, Chrysler. But the best-laid plans don't always go as expected, and despite the grand expectations of its parent, today known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a number of analysts are questioning the flagship brand's long-term viability in the U.S.

Stark sales

"You look at Fiat's (U.S.) monthly sales numbers and they're stark," said Karl Brauer, an editor and analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

In its first full year, 2012, on the market, with just the little 500e in a handful of showrooms, Fiat sold 43,772 vehicles in the U.S. That climbed to a peak of 46,121 two years later, according to data compiled by Kelley Blue Book. Despite the launch of the 500L people mover the following year, demand fell nearly 7 percent and has continued to spiral downward. Last year, despite now having four models in showrooms, Fiat brand sales plunged by another 40 percent to just 15,521, making it one of the weakest mainstream brands in the U.S. market.

Fiat 500L
Source: Fiat Chrysler

Brauer and other analysts point to a variety of problems that have crippled the Fiat brand. When it initially made its American return, the Italian marquee was targeting a recession-strained market where incomes were down, credit was tight and fuel prices were pushing new records. Fiat Chrysler strategists, led by the automaker's founding CEO Sergio Marchionne, saw the strong, initial demand for another European small car brand, Mini, and hoped to repeat its success.

But just as Fiat started to gain some traction, the market began to shift radically. With the economy recovering, demand for minicars like the Mini, Fiat 500 and others collapsed.

"I don't know what Fiat can do to transform itself ... into a brand that people would be interested in," said Brauer.

Obstacles

The Italian import ran into some other obstacles, including the massive shift away from conventional sedans, coupes and hatchbacks like the Fiat 500 to SUVs and crossover vehicles. The automaker tried to respond with the van-like 500L as well as the 500X crossover utility vehicle, but potential buyers largely yawned. It scored no better with the revival of the Fiat 124 Spider, a two-seat sports car jointly developed with Mazda which sells its version as the MX-5 Miata.

2017 Fiat 500X
Source: Chrysler Fiat

It hasn't helped that Fiat has routinely lagged the industry when it comes to quality and reliability. The brand was rock bottom in the latest J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study released last month. The survey, which measures the number of complaints motorists report after three years of ownership, found the typical Fiat suffering from 2.5 times as many "problems" as products from industry leader Toyota, and more than twice as many as the industry average.

"Dependability is the foundation for an auto company," said David Sargent, head of Power's automotive practice. Poor numbers, he added, will lead to weak owner loyalty and lower levels of interest from potential buyers.

Quality issues

Power's latest study wasn't entirely bleak. The original Fiat 500 scored at the top of the limited "City Car" segment. That's a group of models that, on the whole, suffered from an unusually high number of quality and reliability issues.

The problem is that there's little sign Americans will regain their interest in minicars anytime soon, according to automotive analysts, at least barring a massive increase in fuel prices. Complicating matters, the 500 is just getting old by industry standards, with only minor updates since it was launched in the U.S.

To regain ground, said Stephanie Brinley, principle auto analyst at IHS Markit, "the answer has to be product," preferably larger models that target the utility vehicle market. "But when you look at what they've laid out ... it's not what people want," especially in the U.S.

Battery strategy

During a daylong meeting with analysts and reporters in Milan last June, then Fiat Chrysler CEO Marchionne and his team outlined a strategy that, if anything, narrowed down the Fiat lineup. It was dropping most of its mainstream products while focusing primarily on hybrid and electric city cars. A new version of the battery-electric 500e is already in development.

The push into electrification is a particularly big challenge for the brand. The underlying powertrain technology is so expensive that when the first version of the 500e debuted in 2013, Marchionne only half-jokingly asked motorists not to buy it because, "We will lose $10,000 per vehicle. Doing that on a large scale would be industrial masochism." (Marchionne unexpectedly died in July.)

While the cost equation has improved somewhat, the late CEO last June said that it will remain a challenge "to cover the cost of the new electrified technologies." Further complicating matters is the still-slow upturn in demand for battery-electric vehicles in the U.S.

As a result, analyst Brinley expects that the Fiat brand will become "more reliant on Europe and South America," and less on the U.S. While Brinley said she is not ready to "declare the brand dead" in the States, the future is becoming more and more bleak.

Floundered

Every effort to stem the tide has floundered. In February 2018, at the Chicago Auto Show, Fiat officials unveiled an update to the 500 powertrain, announcing that all future gas-powered versions would be turbocharged to improve performance. Even then, officials acknowledged, they didn't expect to win many new buyers. They were simply hoping to improve weak owner loyalty numbers to build repeat sales.

With few clear signs that the parent company can – or even wants to – build the Fiat brand back up, that has raised growing questions about whether it is preparing to pull out, once again, from the American market.

At the strategy session in Milan last June, Marchionne responded to a reporter by insisting Fiat's continued presence in the U.S. is "not in question." But he passed away barely a month later and his successor, Mike Manley, has been moving to put his own stamp on the company.

When asked this month if Fiat will remain in the States, a spokesman would only point to the comments officials made nine months ago, declining to add any new commitment to the brand's U.S. future.

There could be another factor that might play into the future of the Fiat brand, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. The president of PSA, one of Europe's largest automotive manufacturers, on Tuesday indicated his company might be open to considering a relationship with Fiat Chrysler.

Whether there are ongoing talks and, if so, what they might entail, has not been revealed. If there were some sort of relationship formed, however, that would put a spotlight on all of the various brands at Fiat Chrysler and PSA.

A Fiat 500 in a car dealer in Rome.
Andreas Solaro | AFP | Getty Images

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. Fiat Chrysler paid for some of his travel expenses in reporting out this story.