Chrysler Group is preparing to grant about 200 Fiat franchises, and dealer Greg Rairdon wants one.
"Fiat aligns perfectly with that environmentally sensitive customer who we're not seeing in Chrysler stores," says Rairdon, who owns four Chrysler Group stores in the Seattle area.
Chrysler is allowing dealers in about 125 markets in 41 states to apply. Most of the markets are in metropolitan areas.
Applicants will be required to provide "completely separate" showrooms and service areas for the brand. Interested dealers will be invited to Detroit later this summer for two days of in-depth meetings. Applications are going out this week.
The franchise will sell only one model, the 500 minicar, starting in December. A convertible comes in 2011, and an electric version and sporty Abarth version is scheduled to arrive in 2012. For sales-starved Chrysler Group dealers, any chance to boost sales and bring in a new type of customer is welcome.
Chrysler could follow the example of BMW, which has built a small network of Mini dealerships in the United States.
Mini has 97 U.S. franchises and plans to increase that number to 110 by early 2011, according to Yvonne Malmgren, a spokeswoman for Mini USA. In 2009, Mini sold 45,225 cars in the United States. By comparison, Jeep sold 231,701.
Earl Hesterberg, chairman of the Group 1 Automotive Inc. dealership group in Houston, is lukewarm to adding another brand at his six Chrysler stores.
"What we're looking for is more throughput, more sales," he says. "We don't have any intrinsic need for more brands. We need more sales."
Herb Chambers, owner of the Herb Chambers Cos., a large dealership group in the Boston area, says he would like to sell the 500: "Boston is a commuter city. Parking is a problem. Small cars, European flavor, great gas mileage it all works in Boston."
Chambers has a Mini franchise and thinks the Fiat 500 could do well also if Chrysler plays its cards right.
"It depends on how many dealers they give it to," and on pricing, Chambers says.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chrysler, has said $16,000 could be an approximate starting point for the 500, and $32,000 for the electric version.
The European Fiat 500 is 139.8 inches long and weighs 2,150 pounds. That's nearly a yard shorter and 800 pounds lighter than the Dodge Caliber, currently the smallest car in the Chrysler Group fleet. By comparison, a base Mini is 145.6 inches long, weighs 2,568 pounds and starts at $19,500, including shipping.
Beyond the Fiat 500, Chrysler also plans to start selling Alfa Romeos in the United States in 2012.
"If they bring Alfa in, it would be a really big boost," Chambers says. "They've got some gorgeous looking automobiles."
Chrysler spokesman Ralph Kisiel says the company has made no decisions on an Alfa Romeo dealer network.
Wes Lutz, owner of Extreme Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep in Jackson, Mich., is worried he might not get a chance to sell the 500 because he is in a small city fewer than 40,000 people in a predominantly rural area.
"If you've got 2,300 dealers, it should be offered to all 2,300," he says.
Lutz thinks the 500 could be a game-changer if its fuel economy is near 50 mpg.
Chrysler has not issued fuel economy figures for the 500, which goes into production in the fourth quarter at Chrysler's Toluca, Mexico, factory.
The 500 will be sold in the United States with a new version of Fiat's 1.4-liter engine equipped with Fiat's MultiAir engine-breathing technology. Based on what the non-MultiAir versions of the car achieve in Europe, the U.S. 500 with MultiAir should get roughly 44 mpg. c