The world is still waiting to see what kind of auto design emerges from the alliance of Italy's Fiat and U.S. Chrysler. One thing is clear: there's a lot of Italian flair to draw on, in the person of Fiat's design chief Lorenzo Ramaciotti.
Ramaciotti helped design everything from the high-end Ferrari Enzo to the economical Peugeot 407 during his career at independent styling house Pininfarina. Expect some surprises ahead.
"Italian design can't be repetitive. It must be a design that is a little surprising, with something innovative from one model to the next," said Ramaciotti in an interview in his modest office at Fiat's Centro Stile, decorated with logos of the six Fiat brands whose style he commands.
How much of that Italian flair will seep into the Chrysler's designs is still being worked out, nearly a year after Fiat took a controlling stake in the United States' third-largest automaker. Chrysler has its own design operation, but Ramaciotti would be key partner in any cooperation.
In the Ramaciotti world, cars aren't mere vessels of transport — but an expression of an idea. Fiat is fun and friendly, simple solutions. Alfa Romeo is fast, sporty, attention-grabbing.
"If you have a car that takes you from point A to point B, why not have it be nice? If you are capable, why not?" Ramaciotti asks.
Lancia, which is being twinned with the Chrysler brand, will be the harbinger of Italian design: "Good taste, proportionality, all the elements that we are recognized for," he said. By "we," he meant Italian design, not Fiat.
"Italian automobile design was for many years the beacon for the world. Now it has been weakened. Why? Because we exported our design culture," Ramaciotti said. First to Japan, where Italians designed a lot of cars in the 1970s. Then in Korea, for Daewoo and Hyundai, and now China.
Ramaciotti's first move at Fiat was to bring all of Fiat's brands, except the extremely expensive Ferrari, under one roof. No longer designing cars himself, Ramaciotti oversees the the process — keeping the creative staff on deadline — at Fiat's sprawling 20,000-square-meter (215,280 sq. feet) design center at the Mirafiori plant in Turin.
Ramaciotti has a broad portfolio, six brands under one roof: the flagship Fiat brand, sporty Alfa Romeo, up-market Lancia, luxury Maserati, amped-up Abarth and sturdy Fiat light commercial vehicles. The two companies will share platforms and the first Fiat to return to the U.S. market — the Cinquecento, or 500 — is being rolled out later this year, with a few tweaks aimed at American tastes.
The car will look the same on the outside as the original compact retro-chic three-door hatchback that has charmed Europeans. But the American market required some adjustments: wider seats, cupholders, arm rests, automatic transmissions, and larger license plate holders. Fiat is offering colors, like sand, that are more suited to American tastes than, say, the Italian green-white-and-red striped paint job sold in Europe.
"The general flavor of the car has remained very much Italian," Ramaciotti said. "It has such personality that we think that even the Americans will buy it in the Italian colors.
"Someone who buys a 500 does not buy it just as a means of transport, but because it is cute and European."
Fiat isn't expecting to sell huge volumes of the 500 in the United States — around 50,000 to 80,000 a year — figuring the appeal for the tiny car will mostly be in big cities. But it is the car that relaunched the Fiat brand in Europe. And it will be the Fiat that introduces American drivers to Chrysler's new bosses.
While the tiny 500 will be Fiat's Italian emissary to North America, the zippy new Giulietta, Alfa Romeo's latest launch, is unlikely to make the trans-Atlantic passage. The Giulietta is a hatchback, and Americans have scorned hatchbacks, despite all their practicality, in favor of SUVs and crossovers, Ramaciotti said.
The Giulietta made its debut at the Geneva auto show and will go on sale later this month in Europe. It is the car that is supposed to relaunch the Alfa Romeo brand and give it a new chance after a disappointing couple of years.
But what will go to the United States is the new Compact platform that the Giulietta is built on — a billion-dollar investment that Marchionne wants to squeeze at least one million cars from.
In fact, much of what Fiat contributes to Chrysler will not be visible to consumers in terms of style but in the form of cleaner-burning engines and small-car platforms. In Europe, Fiat expects to take advantage of Chrysler's larger car and minivan platforms.
So far in the alliance, Fiat and Chrysler are maintaining separate design centers. Still, the Fiat and Chrysler alliance is slowly growing more entwined, as evident in the appointment of Lancia brand CEO Olivier Francois to run the Chrysler brand.
The Fiat Design Center has been holding back several new models, waiting for the crisis to abate.
Ramaciotti won't say how many, deferring until April 21, when Fiat presents its new five-year business plan.
Analysts expect Fiat will announce plans for a new Panda in 2011, the next generation Punto, new small vans, sometimes called multi-purpose vehicles or MPVs, possibly based on Chrysler's successful minivan, still known in Europe as the Grand Voyager and in the United States as Town & Country. Fiat may also announce a new Lancia Ypsilon, a new Lancia Delta, as well as mid-size and large sedans, based on Chrysler platforms. And there may be a new flagship car for Alfa Romeo.
"To come out with a new car in such a depressed market means losing 20 percent of sales. The peak, when you theoretically should sell the most cars, is when you present the car. You risk ruining yourself at the best moment," Ramaciotti said.
"On the other hand, you can't rely only on the old lineup of cars, with the old cars for an eternity. It's a difficult choice."
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