Fiat’s North America Chief Exits as 500 Sales Continue to Disappoint

Fiat North America brand chief Laura Soave has been ousted from her position as sales of the Fiat 500 continue to disappoint in the U.S. During Soave’s tenure at Fiat, 500 sales have failed miserably to meet 2011 goals, and the marketing plan for the car has been widely criticized. Only 101 of Fiat’s 130 dealerships managed to make even one 500 sale last month, according to a report from Automotive News.

When the Fiat 500 was introduced to North America back in March, Fiat had high expectations for the retro-chic hatch, expecting to sell as many as 50,000 500s by the end of the year. As of October, sales were way off pace, with only 15,820 having been sold to date. To make matters worse, Automotive News reports that the automaker has roughly a half-year supply of 500s, with some 13,730 units on hand. Fiat 500 sales peaked in August at 3106 vehicles sold. Last month, only 1965 were moved.

Fiat execs have differing reasons on why the 500 has failed to meet expectations. Automotive News reports that Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne blames the dealer network for slow sales. “I think Fiat had 50 or 60 dealers [for most of 2011]. I think Ferrari has more dealers than that,” Marchionne said. Fiat global head and Chrysler’s Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois reportedly said that a comparison of the brand’s supply is unfair because, “A brand in the launch phase is not the same as a brand that has been around for 85 years."

Many at Fiat including Francois believe that slow sales are also due to poor marketing. Automotive News reports that many dealers say Fiat was slow to market the 500 upon its initial rollout. Francois recently told Advertising Age, "I don't think we have a car problem; people love the car. I think we have an awareness problem."

Another issue might be the Jennifer Lopez commercials that Fiat rolled out in response to dealer complaints. Many execs from other automakers have quietly whispered that Fiat fumbled the ball with the J.Lo spots, potentially alienating a male customer base. This might be why Fiat has been amping up its sex appeal with the latest commercial for the 500 Abarth hot hatch.

As for Soave, Chrysler only said in a brief statement that she has left the brand “to pursue other interests.” Her replacement, Timothy Kuniskis, left his position as Fiat and Chrysler Director of Marketing to take over the job.  Kuniskis will take over where Soave left off, continuing the rollout of Fiat dealerships nationwide and the reintroduction of the brand to North America. Kuniskis is a longtime Chrysler marketing executive who added Fiat to his responsibilities this past summer. His immediate tasks will be overseeing the launch of the hot 500 Abarth, which just debuted at the 2011 Los Angeles auto show, and the coming 500 EV.

Source: Automotive News (2) (subscription required), Chrysler

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