Fiat’s UK unit is staking its marketing reputation on a new website – live later this week to coincide with the launch of the new C-segment Bravo hatchback – that it believes it will bring it an extra 10,000 sales within two years.

The new site does not appear to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – plenty of rivals’ sites offer car configurators and the like – but Fiat has tried to enhance the online experience with a site optimised for broadband, a car configurator with 3D graphics (the way it ‘paints’ a car in the desired colour is entertaining on its own) and features such as an ‘intelligent financial assistant’ where users enter criteria via ‘dashboard controls’.

The new site will also offer live chat with Fiat experts online and the opportunity to book test drives and arrange servicing. It can also be used on appropriately configured mobile phones to access Fiat customer relations.

“The idea is that the customer comes into the dealership really only to close the sale,” Fiat Auto UK managing director Giulio Salomone told reporters during the launch of the company’s new make-or-break C-segment contender.

Later, Fiat Auto’s British-born global marketing director Steve Norman described the UK as the most sophisticated and demanding new car market outside the US.

Salomone said that 70% of UK buyers – and, Norman added, Europeans, too – research their new models of choice on the web, arriving at dealerships well-informed of the car they now want to see in the metal and, hopefully, drive home.

Norman acknowledged that the new site was Salamone’s initiative and said that Fiat UK had stepped up to the plate on initial costs but the plan was to roll the site out Europe-wide if it worked well here in the UK.

“It was developed in the UK where we had the right customising environment and the right supplier. We aim to offer the best customer brand experience,” Salomone said.

He added that he expected the new site to boost sales by 10,000 units within two years.

Boosting sales is something Fiat’s UK unit has been doing for the last few years though executives acknowledge it’s a long way back up to where Fiat once was in UK volume.

Nonetheless, they note that 2005 sales of 32,000 were bettered by the 58,000 shifted last year and are on-target for 100,000 by 2010. Market share of 1.4% in 2005 is expected to double to 2.9% by 2009.

The Bravo – a very attractive five-door hatchback with a major boost in perceived cabin quality – is the third new model on what Norman described as the “new journey for the brand”.

A new Panda at the end of 2003 was followed in September 2005 by the redesigned Grande Punto (heavily promoted in such places as the famous Harrods department store in London), the Bravo now and the retro-look 500 at the end of the year (Europe launches start next week).

Norman was blunt: “We’ve reintroduced the cars Fiat should have been making,” he noted in an oblique reference to the failed C-segment Stilo (Bravo’s unloved predecessor) and, perhaps, the Croma executive minivan.

There’s more on the way. A new B-segment car, named either Punto or Uno and around 3.7m long, arrives in 2009 and a four-wheel drive C-segment MPV/4×4 crossover (“a sexy Italian version of the [Nissan] Qashqai”, as Norman put it) around the same time, followed by the redesigned Panda in 2010.

To lure buyers back, Fiat has adopted a ‘sexy and stylish look with easy, no-frills technology and efficient engines’ marketing strategy for its new Bravo.

The car majors on 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engines – led by a 150hp T-Jet unit – and a pair of 1.9-litre turbodiesels plus a standard 1.4 petrol. The turbo petrols challenge and mostly best their 1.6-litre rivals for power yet offer lower fuel consumption and emissions and affordable, accessible technology includes ‘Blueandme’ Bluetooth fitted standard on the mid- and high-range cars.

“We want to put in the technology benefits without the customer having to pay extra for them,” Norman said.

Fiat Auto (UK) has specified and priced the Bravo against GM Europe’s Astra and Ford’s Focus, acknowledging that the pair and VW’s Golf have 50% of the segment sown up.

So they’re diving into the other 50% of the sector, where up to 20 brands slug it out.

UK marketing manager Elena Bernardelli said diesels take 35% of C-segment sales here but expected the Bravo diesel split to be higher.

More engines are coming in 2008, along with a revival of sporty Abarth versions and factory-approved aftermarket styling and performance-enhancing kits.

Norman also mentioned a new Fiat bi-cylinder (twin) engine under development that will be turbocharged to 90-110bhp. Branded Multiair, the new 900cc unit will feature measurement of both air supply and fuel.

Bravo marketing really kicks off this week under the tagline ‘Haven’t we all seen enough of ordinary?’ and will use all media channels, led by TV. There will also be considerable use of internet ads on major portals such as Sky TV, AOL and The Sun newspaper.

Graeme Roberts