New take on an old classic: Updated Fiat turning heads, saving cash

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

BUFORD -- Soon after John Montgomery purchased a Fiat 500, the time it took him to complete errands ballooned.

"You can't get somewhere on time," said Montgomery, a former Suwanee resident who moved to Greenville, S.C., three years ago. "People will come up to you, 'Where did you get it? How much did it cost?'"

Montgomery, the president of Fiat-Lancia Unlimited, a national car enthusiast club, bought his new wheels at Team Fiat at the Mall of Georgia. The dealership held its grand opening on Aug. 3, but has sold 45 Fiat 500s in nearly three months.

It's one of three new stores in the Atlanta market owned by AutoNation, the largest dealership group in the country, which would create about 100 new jobs.

"Business has definitely picked up," said Team Fiat general manager Sule Dzaferovic after the store sold six in the first week after the grand opening. "It gives the consumer a nice choice in a small car."

Dzaferovic said the dealership previously sold pre-owned cars, but added the Fiat signage on July 4.

The price tag for the Fiat 500 starts at $16,000, and goes to $21,000 for a convertible model.

It's the flagship vehicle that's signaled the Italian automaker's return to the United States. It's a two-door hatchback with a 4-cylinder engine and 101 horsepower.

AutoNation has 11 stores in the Atlanta area. The Team Fiat Mall of Georgia is the second of seven planned to open around the country.

Marc Cannon, a senior vice president at AutoNation, said the market around Mall of Georgia is home to the "affluent buyer" and a "huge third car market." Cannon added that consumers who own an SUV choose to drive a Fiat 500 for grocery shopping and errands around town. The car's also marketed as a flagship commuter vehicle.

The timing of AutoNation's partnership with Fiat is something the dealership hopes will coincide with a rebound of the economy and exports from Japan. Following the spring tsunami, Cannon said shipments were down 40 percent in the second quarter, and 20 percent in the third. By the fourth quarter, Cannon said the company believes dealer incentives, marketing, and consumer credit would all improve.

"Pricing is starting to come back," he said.

Cannon said AutoNation planned a similar rollout of dealerships that feature a Smart brand car four years ago, but after the downturn of the economy began, those plans were tabled.

Dzaferovic, who previously worked at Team Chevrolet North Point in Alpharetta, said Americans are still heavily reliant on trucks and SUVs, but the Fiat 500 could start a trend of smaller European cars being sold in the U.S.

"Gas prices are never going down," Dzaferovic said. "The car has come in at the right time."

The timing was a long time coming for Fiat fanatics like Montgomery. He said he was one of 34 people who pre-ordered the vehicle at a national showcase last year in Asheville, N.C., without knowing the total price. They each paid a $500 deposit.

Montgomery added that it's refreshing that Fiat's 52 percent stake in Chrysler offers some good news in a flagging industry.

"They took a chance by buying a company in trouble," he said. "We're just the benefactors."

In four months, Montgomery said he hasn't had any problems. But he's still getting used to the "chick magnet," and the long looks he doesn't get in his other vehicle: a Ford F-150.

"It has a spontaneous appeal," Montgomery said of the Fiat 500. "People see it, and they almost already have an emotional appeal."