The Fiat Centoventi is a big surprise. The brand had not presented a concept car in Geneva motor show since 2011 when it revealed the Fiat 500 Coupe Zagato Concept. Unlike other projects, they managed to keep the secret until the very last moment, when pictures of the covered car started to circulate right before of the presentation made by Olivier François.
This concept is an anticipation of the future generation Panda, which is due to hit the market in 2020/2021, or almost 10 years after the introduction of the current generation. It is a proposal for the mobility of the coming years in a car that features a bunch of solutions. The Centoventi goes further and aims to provide a better use of the interior of the car, and increase the idea of personalization.
Fiat talks about a new way of using the car and targets the car sharing companies as key customers of its future cars. The Centoventi is powered by an electric engine whose power can be adapted according to the needs and budget of the customer. The range goes from 100 to 500 km depending on the quantity of batteries purchased. In other words: Fiat goes back to its mobility/practicality roots to anticipate the DNA of its coming cars.
The questions are whether this coming Panda will be enough to offset the negative impact of Jeep’s strong growth on Fiat brand performance. First of all, it is not likely to see the next Panda incorporating most of the interesting solutions of the concept car. François presentation reminded me those of the car designers that easily feature many solutions but very few of them become a reality due to feasibility or cost reasons.
However, the good intentions of the Fiat Centoventi will not be able to mitigate Fiat’s biggest threat, Jeep. Last year, its global sales fell by a massive 8.1% to 1.43 million units of Fiat, Fiat Professional and Abarth. It was the lowest result of the last 7 years, and the first time that the brand is outsold by Jeep. Despite the slowly recovery in Brazil, Fiat faces difficult times in Europe, North America and is practically out of the Indian and Chinese markets.
While Fiat sales increased by 12% in Brazil (+34,000 units), the volume dropped by 18% in Italy (-83,000 units). The other big markets did not help either, as Europe (excluding Italy) advanced by only 2%, but Turkey and Argentina sank with declines of 12% and 41% respectively. The operations in USA and Canada plunged amid the problem to connect with the consumers taste.
It is not a secret that a big part of the problem is related to the lack of fresh products, although there are differences between the Brazilian and Italian operations. Fiat EMEA has not launched an all-new model since 2016, when the Tipo HB and SW appeared. Fiat EMEA is then strongly dependent on the city-cars (39% of total sales), and vans/LCV (25%). In Latin America (Mexico excluded) the subcompacts and pickups topped the sales counting for 38% and 33% of its sales respectively.
What do Fiat EMEA and Fiat LATAM have in common? the lack of SUVs. The Fiat 500X, the only SUV within Fiat’s global range was the brand’s fifth best-selling model in 2018, but only counted for 7% of total sales. It sits in the fastest growing segment (B-SUV) but highly competitive. But that’s it: no more SUVs in the lineup. And this is because of Jeep, the brand that has driven growth at the group during the last 5 years.
While all of the biggest mainstream brands offer 3 or more SUVs in their lineups, Fiat is one of the very few big players to only have one in its range. SUVs were responsible for the positive results of Toyota, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Kia, Mazda, Peugeot and many more. But Fiat does not make use of the SUV boom because there is Jeep occupying its place in the SUV market. Jeep is the SUV brand of FCA, and it has the priority.
Based on the sales performance of the last years, it is clear that the strategy has worked for Jeep. But as it is evident in Brazil and Italy, it is becoming also the biggest threat to Fiat. Volkswagen, Renault or Peugeot are no longer its main competitors, but Jeep. Along with Alfa Romeo, the SUV brand is absorbing most of the resources of FCA. If nothing is changed, Fiat is due to become a niche city-car brand. But is there anything they can do?
Yes. It might be late, but Fiat could develop its own lineup of SUVs based on the Jeeps. Besides the Fiat 500X, there could be also a low-cost B-SUV, a city-SUV (A-SUV) based on the coming baby Jeep; and two compact SUVs based on the Compass: one 7-seats family one, and one sporty/iconic semi-premium. The five SUVs would definitely boost Fiat sales in Italy and Brazil, and could even gain traction in other Latin American and European markets.
The Centoventi is a good idea that targets new customers. But Fiat needs volume in order to keep running its plants and to become a real alternative to the popular French, German and Japanese cars. Frugal and iconic SUVs are the way to achieve that, and Jeep has the knowhow ready to be shared.