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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nissan Takes a Swing at Fiat and Misses

There is no doubt that the new Fiat 500e clearly moves the look of the electric car forward. Easily the most attractive affordable electric vehicle (EV) out there, the Fiat 500e is gathering a lot of attention from EV fans who have been holding out for a stylish alternative to typical bland or unusual looking EV offerings.

The awkward appearance of many EVs throughout time has been at odds with consumer preferences for attractive cars. The Nissan Leaf is an example of an EV that is struggling with this issue, and now that the Fiat 500e is here, it seems Nissan is getting worried... and lashing out at Fiat.

Matt Davis, Head of Fiat Marketing, gives a brief introduction to the Fiat 500e and the Fiat 500L.

What's the Problem?
During a press briefing on the Fiat 500e in Auburn Hills just before the launch, Matt Davis, Head of Fiat Marketing, told the audience of reporters, "Let’s be honest, ugliness is probably one of the worst forms of pollution.”  He added, “The Fiat 500e proves that you do not have to give up on good looks to deliver an electric car.”1

In the Fiat launch video from the LA Auto Show, you can hear Olivier Francois' comments at the 9:00 minute mark.

Olivier Francois, Global Head of Fiat Brand, expanded upon this during the launch of the Fiat 500e at the LA Auto Show by saying:

"In our battle to combat pollution aren't we sometimes polluting the world even more? Yes, I'm afraid we are. When green becomes busy, shiny, blocky, bulky and even scratchy and even worst of all goofy. And let me ask you, isn't ugliness the worse form of pollution of all? Any company can produce something that is environmentally friendly, but it takes Fiat to deliver something that is environmentally sexy."

During the presentation, a few examples from decades past were shown to illustrate the point because Nissan isn't the only company that has run into this dilemma.

If The Shoe Fits
All this talk of attractiveness has touched a raw nerve at Nissan as they appear to have taken the comments personally. The head of Nissan global marketing communications, Simon Sproule, tried to give a sharp rebuke to Fiat in a recent interview told to Automotive News.2 Sproule came out swinging saying, "Let's face it, Fiat has not shied away from controversial styling themselves." Grasping at straws, Sproule continued that Fiat was guilty of their own visual pollution and pointed out Fiat's award winning Doblo Cargo Van (International Van of the Year 2011).

Fiat Doblo Cargo Van. International Van of the Year 2011.

While looks aren't usually the first thing on the mind of buyers of cargo vans, it is a serious consideration to those who buy cars. According to JD Powers, the Leaf's exterior styling is the biggest issue keeping consumers from buying the Leaf, whose YTD sales have dropped 16 percent to 6,791 units through October. The automaker says that the Leaf will not reach its sales target this year of 20,000 cars.1

A look at some of the significant cars Fiat SpA has been responsible for during the past 40 years. These award winning or trend setting designs have what many car manufacturers strive for in vain to achieve - soul and personality.

For Nissan to try to call out Fiat on design doesn't make a lot of sense and only brings attention to one of the Nissan Leaf's weakest attributes - its polarizing looks. Looking at design work even briefly, you will see Fiat SpA has more home runs on their side in the past, say forty years, than Nissan has in their entire 100 year history.

Vacation time for three people with luggage. Due to its intelligent use of space, the Fiat 500 has proven practical for over 1 million users.

Nissan's Sproule also took a swing at the Fiat 500e saying, unlike the Fiat 500e, the Leaf is a "fully functioning" car for families and daily use. This is another miss because he forgets the Fiat 500 fully functions for over one million people around the world.

Credibility and Commitment
In his parting shot, Sproule said "I don't think they have the credibility or the hardware to stand behind these kind of statements. Either you're committed to it or not." Even this remark doesn't hold water.

The fact is, the Fiat Brand is acknowledged as Europe's "Greenest" car company. For the past five years running, Fiat has recorded the lowest level of CO2 emissions by vehicles sold in Europe. Fiat has also been listed for the forth consecutive year in the Dow Jones Sustainability World and Europe indexes.

This commitment to being environmentally responsible stretches for decades. For example, the 1979 Fiat 147 was the first modern car to run on pure ethanol. Fiat produced the world’s first direct-injection diesel engine in 1987 and later invented Common Rail diesel car technology that is now used by leading manufacturers.3 Fiat also developed variable valve timing, patenting the system in 1970.4 Today, Fiat's MultiAir variable valve timing increases horsepower by 10 % while at the same time reducing  CO2 (-10%), particulate matter (-40%) and NOx (-60%) exhaust emissions. Fiat is also a leader in natural gas powered vehicles, producing over half a million cars between 1997 and now.5

1990 Fiat Panda Elettra

When it comes to EVs, Nissan doesn't have a monopoly on the technology. Automotive experts will remember the Fiat X1/23 electric city concept car of the 1970s. The experience from the X1/23 brought forth the 1990 Fiat Panda Elettra - which may very well be the first mass produced electric car by a major manufacturer, followed in 1996 by the Fiat Sicento Elettra (produced until 2005). Then there is the 2009 Fiat Palio Weekend, the first electric car produced in South America.

The new Fiat 500e promises to bring all the excitement and fun to drive characteristics that are typical in Italian cars to the EV market and do so at an affordable price.

Now with the new Fiat 500e, expect to see a car that has all the virtues of an EV, but with an emphasis on being fun. Besides the award winning styling and design providing a sense of ownership pride, the chassis benefits from being 10 percent stiffer than the gasoline 500 sedan. The improved chassis, along with a lower center of gravity, staggered wheel widths, improved aerodynamics and a unique drivetrain feature that allows the car to creep forward when you let off the gas at a stop light, enable the Fiat 500e to drive more like a car and not your typical EV. One more thing - sources tell me to expect the Fiat 500e to be priced competitively... very competitively. I think we now know why Nissan is worried...

1 Fiat bets on 500e to challenge Nissan's Leaf

2 Nissan hits back at Fiat for criticism of Leaf styling

3 Fiat Group Press

4 Automotive Engineer Plus

5 Automotive Engineer Plus

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