After Decades, Fiat Returns To U.S. Auto Market

The Italian automaker unveiled two Fiat 500s at the Los Angeles Auto Show Wednesday. It's been 27 years since Fiat cars were sold in the U.S.

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The carmaker Fiat is hoping to get back on the road to prosperity in the United States. Fiat said ciao to American drivers 27 years ago, but now is unveiling its first new car in decades here.

NPR's Nina Gregory reports from the Los Angeles Auto Show.

NINA GREGORY: For years, drivers joked about Fiat using an unfortunate acronym: Fix It Again Tony. But the carmaker's looking to change that image, with its new Cinquecento, or 500. The tiny car is aimed at urban cappuccino drinkers who want a stylish, efficient car.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) the new Fiat Cinquecento.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREGORY: The 500 first debuted back in 1957. It was the Volkswagen Beetle of Italy. A no-frills, economical, easy-to-drive car, it was named for its 500cc engine. Today's engine is a bit more substantial, though the car's retro styling catches the essence of that original postwar design. While the 500 may be small, it's a big deal for Fiat and for Chrysler, in which Fiat holds a 20 percent stake.

Rebecca Lindland is an analyst for IHS Automotive.

Ms. REBECCA LINDLAND (Analyst, IHS Automotive): If Americans are not receptive to this product, then it puts at risk the idea that maybe they're not going to be receptive to Fiat-engineered Chryslers and Dodges. It has to do well because it is the foundation of the Fiat-Chrysler merger.

GREGORY: According to auto information website Edmunds.com, small car sales have been edging up since the spike in gas prices back in 2008. With gas prices fairly stable now and a pent up demand for bigger cars and trucks, the challenge for Fiat will be finding its way in the market.

Nina Gregory, NPR News.

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