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For Fiat, a mini lesson in launching a tiny car

Diana T. Kurylko covers various U.S. import brands for Automotive News

Mini to Fiat-Chrysler chief Sergio Marchionne: Here's some free advice from the brand whose success you tried to emulate with the not-so-successful Fiat 500.

Mini sold a record 57,511 vehicles last year in the United States, its biggest market. Ten years ago when Mini launched here, it sold 24,590 cars -- far more than even U.S. management expected.

What's the magic?

"It is not quite as magical as you think," said Jim McDowell, head of Mini USA. "You take it a little spoonful by a little spoonful."

Marchionne "underestimated what it takes to set up the dealer network and what it takes for acceptance," McDowell said.

A Mini is small, with a Cooper hardtop length of 146.6 inches. But the new-generation Fiat 500 that went on sale in the United States is 139.6 inches long -- which may be a little too small for this market, Mini executives feel.

On top of that, "ours is engineered so that you feel secure driving it on I-95," McDowell said.

Another thing, Fiat: If you're going to sell a car to women, don't use sexy pop singer Jennifer Lopez to star in your commercials, McDowell says.

And stop with the public proclamations about how many cars you'll sell. Marchionne boasted that Fiat would sell 50,000 units of the 500 last year. It fell miserably short of that target with sales of 19,769.

Kay Segler, senior vice president of Mini worldwide brand management, says: "When you set an official target and you don't reach it, you start to do stupid things like discounting."

Fiat is continuing a $199 per month sign-and-drive lease incentive and has a $500 cash rebate on the subcompact 500.

Finally, don't think Mini succeeded in the United States simply because of its heritage.

Mini owners almost immediately formed their own network via the Internet and have continued the grass-roots buzz, McDowell says.

Mini has encouraged that bond by offering owner events including an annual cross-country road rally, he says.

"And we have really fun stores in all the metropolitan areas -- and they all are stand-alone."

By the way, Mini makes a nice profit on its cars. The base Cooper hardtop starts at $20,200, including shipping, but the average Mini transaction price in 2011 was $28,000, McDowell said.

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