LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

Fiat Strada could find a niche in U.S.

Automotive News | May 16, 2012 - 12:38 pm EST

Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler Group for Automotive News.
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DETROIT -- Maybe I'm crazy for even thinking it, but if I could bring one Fiat-based vehicle to the United States that's not yet here, I wouldn't hesitate in my choice:

The Fiat Strada.

I've never driven a Strada and never seen one in person, but the photos I've seen of the Brazilian-built runabout intrigue me.

This year, Fiat is shipping the lifestyle pickups to Europe. A Chrysler spokesman said there are no plans to bring it to United States, and that's a shame.

Because I think -- admittedly with little more than a hunch to back me up -- that a properly packaged Ram- or Jeep-branded Strada would find receptive U.S. customers.

After years of declining sales, the small-truck segment once dominated by the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, Chevy S10, and Dodge Dakota now looks like an episode of Survivor.

The Tacoma -- the last truck in the lonely segment not going extinct in the United States -- is holding its own, but with 110,705 sales in 2011, isn't setting the world on fire. There are of course still a few Rangers, Dakotas, GMC Canyons and S10 successor Chevy Colorados driving off dealer lots, but not many.

Yet the Strada isn't really like those other small trucks. It's more like the now-departed Subaru Baja or even a throwback to the Chevy El Camino and its counterpart, the long-gone Ford Ranchero.

For owners, all vehicles are compromises: Many people who drive pickups only haul air most of the time, but they buy their pickups for those times when they need to fill the bed with 2,000 pounds of mulch. And how many minivans are on the road with just a driver inside keeping company with five or six empty seats? Those vehicles are marketed for the times they're needed without mentioning all the times that they're not.

The Strada, on the other hand, embraces the compromise. Instead of doing one thing great -- say, hauling a ton of mulch -- and a bunch of things inefficiently, it's designed to do several things good enough. That's what makes it appealing.

The front-wheel-drive Strada is just over 14 feet long, with beds ranging from 66 inches to just 42 inches long, depending on the cab configuration. A modified suspension gives the little runabout a towing capacity of about 1,500 pounds.

As built today, the Strada has a small 100-hp engine, but gets a turbodiesel in Europe that is expected to flirt with 45 mpg, according to pickuptrucks.com.

If Chrysler were to drop its 160-hp turbocharged 1.4-liter in there and maybe a little Jeep powertrain magic, it would make the Strada a very interesting little vehicle in a segment where it would stand almost alone.

After all, Chrysler told us in November 2009 that it would bring a "lifestyle truck" to North America before 2014, and I can't think of a better vehicle to fit that bill than a local version of the Strada.

A properly packaged Ram- or Jeep-branded Strada could find receptive U.S. customers.

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