2012 Fiat 500

Bringing a popular European car to the United States is a complicated process. Often smaller than American cars, European cars are built to serve different tastes and tend to feature unique styling, engines, and bodystyles. Many automakers have tried to sell American buyers on European-market cars and failed. But the real challenge in launching a European car in the US is in the details.

The newly released Fiat 500 is a good example. Although the US-market 500 looks nearly identical to the European model, Fiat made dozens of virtually imperceptible changes before being legally allowed to sell the small hatchback stateside. Other subtle changes will help make the car more appealing to American buyers. According to the New York Times, the result is a similar but subtly different Fiat 500 from the version that has been wildly popular in Europe since its release more than four years ago.

Legal requirements forced many changes to the 500. For example since European plates are wider and shorter than ours, Fiat had to re-engineer the front and rear fascias to accommodate American license plates. Engineers also had to rework the A-pillar trim due to differences in crash safety standards, and increase the size of the windshield wipers to meet US guidelines requiring more windshield coverage. And of course the infamous “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” warning had to be added to US-spec side mirrors in order to meet federal regulations.

Some changes satisfy consumer demand rather than legal requirements. Americans tend to travel longer distances than Europeans, so all US 500s will have cruise control, which is not standard on European models. Americans tend to enjoy slurping sodas and coffee on the go, so Fiat also increased the cupholder size for US cars. Most importantly, Fiat has never offered a true automatic transmission on the 500 in Europe, since Europeans still favor manual transmissions. But Fiat decided that for the 500 to be a success in the States, it needed a conventional automatic.

With all of these changes, Fiat shows it knows that when bringing a car to a new market, it’s the details that matter.

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Jeffrey Archer is fortunate to have turned a passion for cars into a career. His wide-ranging automotive experience includes work for automakers and dealers in addition to covering the news. When not writing, he spends his time searching for unique cars on AutoTrader.com.

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