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Emotional rescue for Fiat

Sad Panda: Slow sales meant the Panda only lasted two years on sale in Australia despite being hugely popular in Europe.

Fiat ditches Punto, Panda and will appeal to buyer’s emotions with future models

Fiat logo12 Sep 2015

By STUART MARTIN

FIAT Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Australia has whittled down its Fiat passenger-car portfolio, admitting that the emotional appeal of certain models in the brand’s portfolio stand a better chance of succeeding in the sales race here.

The car-maker has culled the Punto and Panda hatches from the Australian line-up following slow sales in the increasingly competitive Australian light-car segment.

While the brand has plans for the facelifted 500 and the 500X crossover before the end of the year, the heart strings will be pulled to near breaking point by the arrival of the 124 Spider, set to be unveiled at the Los Angeles motor show later this year and on sale here during the third quarter of 2016.

The brand has access to several sweet and small powerplants, including the 140kW/250Nm turbocharged four-cylinder unit in the Abarth Biposto or the Alfa Romeo 4C’s 1.75-litre powerplant, but none are confirmed for the Fiat-badged sportscar.

The 124 Spider is a co-development between Fiat and Japanese car-maker Mazda and will be based on the fourth-generation ND MX-5 that launched locally in August.

Fiat and Alfa Romeo product manager Aitezaz Khan remained quiet on the joint-venture convertible sportscar project with Mazda, but added that it will be a “true Abarth in form and function, the Abarth DNA”.

“It will be a true Abarth, all I can say is that if you look at the current range of products, that's the sort of experience we're going to offer in the 124,” he said. “Pick some of the features that are on them, that's the sort of experience we're going to offer with the 124.”

FCA Australia director marketing and product strategy Zac Loo said since the brand came into the group’s control in 2012, some lessons were learned about the Fiat product portfolio and the Australian appetite for the its more emotive product.

“500 has delivered the most success on an aspirational and emotional side,” he said.

“We've given them (Punto and Panda) every opportunity to succeed but we just haven't seen them gain the sort of momentum we would like.” Mr Khan said there was no immediate replacement set for the Punto or the Panda, but added that there would be a renewed focus on the 500 and the incoming 500X crossover.

“Some resonate and some don't. In this market there is a lean towards the aspirational, the emotion, for example the 500 adds a bit of magic to the ownership experience, that's where we're focussed.

“In the short term that's the plan. Going forward the product portfolios are constantly evolving. If we see that there is a space for product in the market, if it's in our portfolio, we'll look at it,” he said.

Mr Khan said the brand needed to get people into its showrooms and into the cars for its local volume to build.

“The more people who experience the product, the more accessible it is and there's more confidence in the brands - numbers drive numbers,” he said.

Mr Khan maintained that a lack of “bums on seats” was not the nail in the coffin for Punto and Panda, which were well-priced but failed to capture the attention of buyers.

“We had a fair bit of push behind the product, if it resonates people rush towards it,” he said.

The Punto was reintroduced to Australia in August 2013 after being ditched from the line-up following a four-year run from 2006 to 2010 under its former importer, Ateco Automotive.

When it was reintroduced, FCA Australia launched it with an attractive $16,990 driveaway starting price in an attempt to eat into some of the bigger players in the segment, but it only captured 230 sales in the five months it was on sale in 2013, 898 units in 2014, and 153 to the end of August this year.

The Panda arrived in late 2013, two years after its successful launch in Europe, but found just 305 homes in 2014, making it the third slowest-selling car in the micro class, beating out only the Smart ForTwo (108) and the Chery J1 (74). So far this year Fiat has sold 221 Pandas.

With prices ranging from $16,500 plus on-roads for the base Pop to $24,000 for the Trekking, the Panda was also deemed by some to be too expensive for the micro-car segment.

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