INTERVIEW: Fiat brand head, Olivier Francois

By Chris Wright | 17 November 2014

Olivier Francois

Olivier Francois

Fiat's 500 family could be the template for future C or D segment models, Fiat global brand chief Olivier Francois has hinted in an interview with just-auto.

He said it could be that the company would market models around the world under the same family identity, rather than having different names in different countries, and spin a number of body styles off the same platform.

Speaking during the launch of the 500X crossover model in Italy, Francois also indicated that Fiat is looking at larger models for the future. He said: "Small cars have been our bread and butter but we can't live on bread and butter alone. We need some jam and have to look further at crossovers as well as premium and aspirational models, segments beyond A and B."

Last week just-auto learned that the Fiat Bravo is no longer being manufactured in Europe, having finished production in July and it will not be replaced until 2016, at which time a new three-model series will enter production in Turkey. A five-door hatchback and SW estate are expected (Progetto 317), as well as a sedan to replace the Linea (342).

Fiat's Turkish JV partner is said to be planning to manufacture 580,000 units of the sedan and a combined 700,000 of the hatchback and SW. Production will run from 2016 to 2013, a statement by TOFAS to the Istanbul stock exchange noted earlier this month

In the meantime, Francois said there is still room for further expansion of the 500 family, "although we have to be careful not to dilute the name with too many bodies". While it carries the 500 name, the new crossover does not share a platform with its stablemates, but with the Jeep Renegade. Both models will be built at Fiat's Melfi plant in Italy.

In a burgeoning crossover market what will set Fiat's new 500X apart from the rest? Italian-ness of course. "We have the only crossover with a history," said Olivier Francois. "It is a history which dates back to 1957 with the launch of the original Fiat 500; the 500X is the latest development of this iconic car, it is the only compact crossover designed, engineered and built in Italy."

While the 500X and Renegade share the same segment they are very different, said Francois. "The two cars look very different and are aimed at different customers. The 500X is not too big, not too small, not too basic, expensive or cheap it is a giant leap for the 500 as a family and Fiat as a brand.

"Just look at what the 500 has achieved since it was launched in 2007 - it is the best-selling model in its segment in Europe and has sold 1.5m globally, the 500L is also the best seller in its segment in Europe. The crossover is not simply a trim level or evolution, it is an all new car although you can see instantly that it is part of the 500 family."

It will be sold in 100 countries and rolling out the crossover is described by Francois as a "mission" that cannot fail. "That is why we have invested so much in quality for this car. 2.5m hours in engineering, 500,000 hours in bench testing and 5m kms of road testing. There has been a big focus on quality."

The 500X is engineered as a 4x4, front wheel drive only and 4x2 with traction control. Powerplants include 3 diesels, 2-lite, 1.6 and 1.3, as well as three petrol units, two 1.4s in 170 hp and 140hp trim and 110hp Eco 1.6 c-torque unit. The transmission line up features a 6-speed manual, 6-speed auto while Chrysler's 9-speed auto will also be available in the top end 4x4.

Francois added: "We want this car to multiply our numbers and making this happen is top of my agenda."

Gianluca Italia, head of Fiat brand for Europe, Middle East and Africa pointed out that in the past ten years, crossover sales have grown from 5% of the market to 20% and they continue to grow. "The growth is outstanding and is led by new vehicles coming into the market. They are not stealing sales from other segments. All the third party surveys tell us that people buy crossovers for their style, character and refinement and we have created this car around the customers.

"Biggest sales in Europe will come from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK, areas where Fiat's Panda Cross model does well.

"But there are some battles you don't fight. We will not try to compete by being the cheapest but by being the best value. The 500X will have the same levels of equipment you will find on premium models but will be more affordable."

See also: FCA eyes Fiat 500X boost in US