June 5, 2012 at 11:21 AM ET
Barely a month after launching sales of the new Fiat 500 Abarth the maker has told dealers it will no longer be able to supply orders for the rest of the 2012 model-year.
The high-performance version of what Italians call the Cinquecento has helped kick-start demand after a rough launch for the Fiat brand – which led to the ouster of the marque’s original marketing chief. But sales have surged in recent months, buoyed by more aggressive marketing and the launch of the new Abarth edition.
“The Fiat 500 Abarth is unstoppable,” Fiat brand boss Tim Kuniskis said in a statement. “Dealer orders for the Abarth dramatically exceeded the number of units we had scheduled for production. We had to schedule additional production to try and keep up with the demand. Most Abarth units are sold within one day.”
A company spokesman stressed that some Abarth models are still available at dealerships around the country though, “customers might have to look around” by calling or visiting several dealers to find one.
Fiat spokesman Ariel Gavilan added that “Due to the high demand, we are increasing production for the 2013 model-year,” the U.S. version of the minicar assembled at a plant run by partner Chrysler in Toluca, Mexico. Unfortunately for those potential buyers now waiting, the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth won’t reach showrooms until sometime in the final quarter of this year.
“I am not surprised” to see the Abarth version sell out, said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst with IHS, “because the American buyer who wants a Fiat 500 wants a fun, powerful vehicle with a manual transmission.” A stick was not offered on the original Cinquecento coupe or cabriolet models.
The same pattern of demand occurred when Mini launched its original model in the U.S. a decade ago, added Lindland. The primary demand was for the more sporty Cooper S and the John Cooper Works versions with manual transmissions.
Fiat does not break out numbers for each of the various versions of the 500, but anecdotal evidence suggests the Abarth has run up the charts since the first of the sportier model started reaching showrooms.
What may be most important to the maker is that this rising tide has lifted all of Fiat’s boats.
Launched at the end of 2010, the maker sold barely half of its original, 50,000-unit target for the 500 in 2011, leading some analysts to question whether Fiat might even survive in the States after original marketing chief Laura Soave was fired late last year – replaced by Chrysler veteran Kuniskis.
But sales have surged since the beginning of the year, May marking the fourth consecutive monthly record. Volume last month hit 4,003 vehicles, up from 1,759 in May 2011.
“This lays to rest last year’s story of slow sales,” the maker proclaimed on a website dedicated to the Fiat 500.
May marked the first full month of retail deliveries for the performance model. But observers say there are other reasons why Fiat may finally be gaining traction.
In an interview earlier this year, brand boss Kuniskis admitted to TheDetroitBureau.com that awareness for the Fiat marque was lagging in the 20% range, far behind potential competitors. That led the maker to reverse its original strategy – which focused on non-traditional marketing – and aim for the mainstream, starting with a widely watched and re-watched Super Bowl commercial starring supermodel Catrinel Menghia.
She reappeared in a second spot also featuring Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen.
The $22,000 Abarth, however, has helped Fiat shed a reputation as a “secretary’s car,” a term typically used derisively to describe a vehicle that is more show than go.
Named for Carlo Abarth, an Austro-Italians race driver who made a name tuning track versions of the original Fiat 500, the new model used a turbocharged version of the Fiat MultiAir engine to deliver 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque – a 58% and 73% bump, respectively.
Fiat expects to get another shot in the arm next year when it adds a longer version of the Cinquecento to its U.S. line-up, the Fiat 500L.