JIM HENRY

How Fiat 500 might follow Mini's path

Jim Henry is a special correspondent for Automotive News

You would think the Fiat 500 and the Mini brand would be good candidates for leasing, but customers don't seem to see it that way.

Both brands fit the profile for leasing: European imports, aimed at young customers -- or at least customers with youthful attitudes -- in upscale, lease-friendly markets.

Mini typically is sold next-door to BMW, one of the most commonly leased brands. Both are financed by BMW Group Financial Services. Yet Mini lease penetration in August, at 25 percent, was barely above industry average, according to AutoObserver.com, and that was the highest Mini leasing has been all year.

Meanwhile, Fiat execs have said lease penetration also is low for the 500, which went on sale in March. Tom Miller, president of O'Brien Fiat in Greenwood, Ind., said last week his take is that people don't need to "stretch" to buy the Fiat 500 by leasing it because it's relatively affordable. The starting price of the base Fiat 500 -- or "Pop" model -- is $16,000, including $500 destination.

Still, he said he was glad Ally Financial started offering Fiat lease deals this summer. Nationally advertised specials include a $199 monthly payment on the 2012 Fiat 500 "Pop" trim and equipment level. "Advertising just began in August," Miller said. "As the word gets out," he says, leasing will improve.

But if Mini's experience is any guide, Fiat 500 leasing will get only so high.

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