Fiat 500 marks Italian carmaker's return to the US

Fiat 500 in the US Fiat is playing the heritage card, using the retro-styled 500 to recapture the US

Braving the chilly Michigan winter, Carl Galeana is getting ready to bring a bit of sunny Italian glamour to America's often drab motor city.

In recent weeks, his 12,000 sq ft car dealership in suburban Detroit has changed beyond recognition.

Though it is a bit of a building site at the moment, the square concrete building will soon have been converted from a General Motors Saturn dealership to one stocked with a colourful array of Fiat 500 models, complete with service bays around the back.

"I should have it up and running by the middle of February," Mr Galeana says as he surveys the building that will soon be glass-fronted with a pillared front reading FIAT in large, capital letters.

Building foundations
Carl Galeana's Fiat dealership Soon the dealership in Warren, Michigan, will be stocked with a colourful array of Fiat 500 models

Fiat's arrival in Warren, Michigan, has been warmly welcomed by the locals, not least because about one in 10 of them is of Italian American descent, explains Mr Galeana.

"They're extremely passionate about Fiat," he grins.

The passion is not expected to immediately translate into sales, however.

During the first year, Mr Galeana expects to sell no more than 250-300 cars, which he acknowledges "is not a great amount of vehicles".

But it is a start - and one that the company will build on.

"We're entering this market after an absence of 27 years," says Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of both Fiat and its alliance partner Chrysler.

So before sales can begin to climb, the brand needs to be noticed.

Other models

Start Quote

Buying a Fiat 500 is a lifestyle statement”

End Quote Sergio Marchionne Chief executive, Fiat and Chrysler

Initially, the tiny 500's job will be to reintroduce the Fiat brand to the US.

"It's very much like the Mini," says Mr Galeana, referring to the two cars' retro-design.

In addition, adds Mr Marchionne, "the car represents all the iconic Italian values".

The hope is to ramp up Fiat 500 sales to 60-65,000 cars per year.

And gradually, as customer awareness grows, other Fiat models will follow, perhaps during next year or the year after.

'European blueprint'

Fiat's return to the US comes amidst much concern about petrol prices rising towards $4 a gallon and talk of growing demand for smaller, less thirsty cars - not just in the US, but across the world.

Fiat 500 parade at the harbour of Monaco, December 2010 When Fiat was last selling cars in the US, 27 years ago, there were still many original 500s on the road

"The global vehicle market is moving more and more towards a European blueprint," observes Callum MacRae, PricewaterhouseCoopers motor industry analyst.

"European manufacturers are very adept at engine technology."

This could benefit Fiat, as "fuel economy is embedded into the brand", Mr Marchionne acknowledges.

"But it's about much more than that. I don't think it's dependent on fuel prices," he insists.

"Buying a Fiat 500 is a lifestyle statement," according to Mr Marchionne.

Though whether it is a lifestyle that will suit the Americans is far from clear.

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