STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The auto industry has improved in recent years, but apparently business is not quite good enough to make room for Fiat. It was out of the U.S. market for almost 30 years until the launch of the Fiat 500 last March. Sales have fallen far short of expectations, while Fiat partner Chrysler is rapidly improving its U.S. sales. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Fiat of Lakeside in Macomb, Michigan used to be a Saturn dealership. Now it's transformed with chic Italian design, from modern lighting to black leather sofas. But so far, the cars are pretty much getting an American cold shoulder.
Sales manager Rick Foley is happy to offer customers an Italian espresso from his top-of-the-line machine. But perhaps like the cars, espresso's an acquired taste.
RICK FOLEY: You've got to like it, because it's very bold, rich, but regular coffees, you know, or the cappuccinos are big, we do a lot of cappuccinos.
SAMILTON: Dealers across the country managed for months with no national advertising for the car. When it did roll out, well - in this T.V. commercial, actress Jennifer Lopez appears to be driving a Fiat 500 through her old Bronx neighborhood. It's kind of gritty and genuine - like Eminem and Chrysler.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION COMMERCIAL)
JENNIFER LOPEZ: This is my world. This place inspires me.
SAMILTON: Turns out, the commercial was mostly shot in L.A. and a body double was used for those Bronx scenes. Even so, Rick Foley thinks J.Lo is a fine spokeswoman to build awareness of the car. But what he needs is foot traffic.
FOLEY: We need stuff that's local, stuff that's here in town, that's in Detroit.
SAMILTON: Those regional ads haven't rolled out yet. Dealers also have only one model of car to sell. Fiat has promised them more models in about a year, maybe a four-door Fiat, maybe an Alfa Romeo. But there's no question, it's been a tough, tough year.
FOLEY: You know, we had to make a lot of employee cuts, and run off a pretty much skeleton crew, because, you know, the money, it's the money thing, and we have to watch every dollar and cent.
SAMILTON: While there's plenty of disappointment in the launch, Thad Kirk says Fiat's return is a vindication. He's Vice President of Fiat Lancia Unlimited, a thousand-member club for people who love Italian cars. Kirk says Fiat owners were resigned to being a cast-off group when Fiat left in 1984.
THAD KIRK: And we were going to muddle along with old cars, and enjoy them to the best extent we could, with no support from a company or from parts suppliers.
SAMILTON: So Kirk was among the first in line to buy a new Fiat 500, to add to his stable of three classic Fiats. He hasn't been disappointed by the car, which he thinks follows the Fiat tradition: fun to drive, economical and stylish.
KIRK: It's not a car for the masses, it's not going to be the next Toyota Camry or the next Honda Accord. It's not intended to be that, either. There are certain people who will get it, and the people who get it will really like it and really have a good time with it.
SAMILTON: It doesn't appear sales are being hurt by the old timers' stereotype that Fiat cars broke down a lot. But the decision to sell the cars in totally separate Fiat dealerships, or studios as they're called, did slow things down. Aaron Bragman is with IHS Automotive. He says maybe Fiat should have let existing Chrysler and Dodge dealerships sell the car. But he thinks all the problems can be fixed.
AARON BRAGMAN: It's not yet, I think, fair to say, you know, based on this past year, are they going to be successful or not, because frankly the rollout had some bumps.
SAMILTON: Bragman says he'd give the Fiat 500 through next year to prove itself. For Fiat, it's clearly about getting back into a hugely important car market in North America - another step in the plan to turn Fiat and Chrysler into one global player.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.