Independent New Zealand car importer and distributor Neville Crichton, who owns the 'Kiwi' Fiat and Alfa Romeo car importer Ateco Automotive NZ, will reintroduce Fiat passenger cars to Australia - after a 15-year absence - following his successful launch of Alfa Romeo in 1998 and Fiat commercial vehicles in 2001.

Crichton's Sydney-based Ateco Australia will launch the new Fiat Grande Punto at the Melbourne motor show on 9 February, prior to the mid-year re-launch of the passenger car brand in Australia, around the same time as the Grande Punto reaches New Zealand.

Crichton has appointed David Stone general manager for Fiat cars in Australia, adding to his existing role as GM of Alfa Romeo in Australia.

"Ateco has always made it clear that we had to have the right product at the right retail price before Ateco could consider selling cars on our side of the Tasman," said Stone. "We have now reached that point. The Grande Punto is an outstanding new car, it has pricing that will make it highly competitive and, as a newly launched model, it has a full production life ahead of it over which we can re-coup launch and set-up costs."

Much like it did when returning Alfa Romeo to Australia, Ateco will not launch existing models. Instead it will add selected new Fiat models to its range as they are launched in Europe.

Although dealers will eventually be appointed specifically as Fiat car outlets, and will be expected to set up a separate operation for the new marque, the majority of Australia's 17 Alfa Romeo dealers will initially represent Fiat because of the natural 'fit' with their existing businesses - the cars look different but there is a lot of mechanical commonality.

Although Fiat will launch in Australia with only the Grande Punto, there will be a full range, including a diesel variant, and Ateco promises "highly competitive" prices and specifications to match Japanese and European-sourced rivals on both sides of the Tasman Sea.

"We have also said that we want this to be a long term return," added Stone. "That means it must be a successful and profitable business for both ourselves and the dealers. Fiat owners have to know that we are here… for the long term and their cars will be supported for their full lives."

"This means Grande Punto will be priced and equipped to succeed in Australia, [rather than] trading on its name and Italian heritage of style and performance.

"That said, the versions we plan to bring to Australia in June will be both special and unique, offering levels of style and performance simply not seen in this market sector."

The Grande Punto will be positioned [priced] in the premium/prestige segment of the small car market along with numerous European and Japanese rivals. While it will share dimensions and engine sizes with cheaper models in its sector, Ateco reckons it is ideally positioned to cater for an emerging trend in Australia - noticeable over the last 18 months - towards smaller cars, though buyers are unwilling to give up the style, equipment and performance they have been used to in larger models.

"Fiat has an unrivalled reputation for designing the best small cars in the world," said Stone. The Grande Punto takes this to a new level. It has all the features and equipment of larger cars, along with their performance."

Ateco will price and specify the Grande Punto below its Alfa Romeo 147 but will aim it at the same demographic group - young, equal male-female split, wanting a distinctive, 'different' car that is seen as more than just transport, yet competitively priced.

Ateco said its return of Fiat cars to Australia will also benefit the brand in New Zealand - where it has held the passenger car franchise for several years - as it can now negotiate on both supply and pricing [of similarly-specified cars] for both markets.

This has already applied to its Alfa Romeo purchases since it gained the New Zealand franchise, and is the latest in a trend- begun by Saab in 1993 - for importers of niche European models to sell near-identical models on both sides of the Tasman. Though Australia has more stringent emission and safety rules, New Zealand allows compliance with any or all international standards (Federal, EU, etc.) and both countries are, of course, right-hand drive.

Lawrie Malatios, general manager of Ateco Automotive NZ, added: "We are working on a joint strategy for products and pricing for both markets and with the Australian demand added to our own market demand, this opens up a wide range of product and pricing choices."

Graeme Roberts