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The not so prophetic story of the Fiat 500L

The proverb "No man is a prophet in his own land" perfectly fits the Fiat 500L small minivan, which has its North American debut today at the Los Angeles auto show.

The 500L is built in Serbia in a factory that once produced Yugo cars. Only 1 percent of the production will be sold in the Balkan country. The rest will go to other parts of Europe and to global markets including the United States.

I don't know of any other vehicle where 99 percent of its production is exported.

That number is unlikely to change. In Serbia, only members of the small middle class will be able to afford the 500L's starting price of 13,550 euros. Fiat sells an old-generation Punto subcompact starting at 5,600 euros in Serbia but attracts only a couple of hundred customers a month because the local market collapsed from an almost 50,000 unit peak in 2007 to little more than 20,000 units expected this year.

The 500L production plant in Kragujevac, 130km from the capital Belgrade, is totally different than the factory that once built low-quality Yugo cars, thanks to a 1 billion investment that has improved the plant in the same way that Fiat transformed its Pomigliano, Italy, plant for the new Panda and Chrysler's factory in Belvidere, Illinois, for the Dodge Dart.

Fiat plans to build about 28,000 units of the 500L this year and 140,000 next year, of which 40,000 will be exported to the United States. Production of the European version began in July and the U.S. variant will follow in February.

But like the prophet shunned in his own country, the 500L will be a lonely sight on Serbia's roads, except on the trucks and trains that transport the vehicle to the sea for export.

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