DETROIT -- This summer, Fiat dealers finally got a second nameplate, the 500L, to sell. Despite high hopes, the new car has failed to boost the brand's U.S. sales.
After a 24 percent decline in September, Fiat brand sales are the same -- 32,743 -- as they were through nine months of 2012. Demand has stagnated despite the addition of the 500L compact hatchback and more Fiat dealerships than last year.
The flat sales add to the frustration of Fiat dealers, who agreed to help bring the brand back to the United States following Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne's 2009 rescue of Chrysler from bankruptcy.
"I think most dealers have been disappointed in the performance of their Fiat dealerships," said Alan Haig, president of automotive services for Presidio Group, a San Francisco financial services company that brokers dealership sales.
One dealer in the northern half of the country echoed that view.
"It's sad to say, but it's become a stepchild. Chrysler doesn't want to hear that, but that's the reality," said the dealer, who spoke on condition that he not be named.
The dealer said he runs his Fiat store as a used-car lot, supplemented by whatever Fiats he can sell. "That's the only way I can make it work," he said.
All but one Fiat dealer contacted for this report declined to be named to avoid being identified by the factory.
Jason Stoicevich, who took over as head of the Fiat brand in the United States in April, said sales of the 500L will grow. "Our online traffic has improved," he said, "but it takes a few months" for those investigating a 500L to get into showrooms.
Factory figures shown to dealers indicate that only about 45 percent of Fiat dealerships are profitable. But many of these share some expenses with Chrysler Group dealerships, meaning even fewer would be profitable if treated as stand-alone businesses.
Fiat originally asked for stand-alone stores with separate service departments. But the factory later scaled back the investment requirements.
Volume is light. Some dealers say many Fiat dealers prefer to concentrate on their profitable Chrysler Group stores while others say the brand just needs more time.
The average Fiat dealership sold about 17 units per month this year, compared with the average Chrysler Group dealership's 64 units.
Last week the dealers received another blow when Automotive News reported that the Alfa Romeo 4C sports coupe likely will be marketed through the nation's 67 Maserati stores.
Earlier this year, Chrysler executives said the low-volume two-seater would be sold by the "top performers" among Fiat's 210 U.S. dealerships. It's not clear whether Fiat dealers will also get the car because Fiat executives decline to answer questions about the issue.
For perspective, Fiat's annual sales are roughly tracking what Chrysler Group promised from the beginning. Marchionne, who also heads Chrysler, predicted in 2010 that Fiat would sell about 50,000 units annually in North America. Through September, the annual rate in the United States alone was about 44,000.
But for dealers, the optimism of the early years has been replaced by realism -- and in some cases, disappointment.
"You never know. You can get one product that turns really hot, and it could turn everything around," said one Fiat dealer. "At some point, I truly believe Chrysler's going to figure out how to make this thing hunt."