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Fiat 500, Panda future in doubt – report

Shrinking profits may cost two of Europe’s most popular minicars their lives, a new report from Europe have suggested.
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In the clearest sign the European minicar segment is in critical condition, the segment’s two best sellers – the Fiat Panda and 500 – mightn’t be directly replaced, with the latter potentially surviving only as a more premium electric offering.

Automotive News reports Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is planning to quit Europe’s minicar segment due to rising development costs required to meet tougher emissions standards. This may in turn herald a return to the larger B-segment once occupied by the Fiat Punto.

CEO Mike Manley announced in a third-quarter earnings call that FCA would “refocus on this higher-volume, higher-margin segment” in the very near future and that would “involve a move away from the minicar segment”.

Automotive News quotes industry insiders as saying this would happen by 2024.

If FCA withdraws, it’ll join Ford and Opel/Vauxhall in what appears to be a mass exodus from the minicar segment.

Even Volkswagen is leaving the door open for a withdrawal from the segment, marketing boss Jürgen Stackmann telling Top Gear earlier this year that if emissions legislation continues to get tougher “there is not a single business case possible for this kind of car”.

Last year, Fiat sold 188,448 units of its retro 500 and 168,904 examples of its boxy Panda. Even indomitable Volkswagen couldn’t match that, its Up sitting down in third place with only 97,366 sales.

Fiat evidently has no trouble selling these ageing hatchbacks, though Manley concedes the Fiat range has an average age which is “the highest in the industry”.

The current Panda dates back to 2011 but it rides an updated version of the 2003 Panda’s platform. The 500 uses the same platform and was introduced in 2007. Of the two, the 500 has been the steadier seller, Panda sales falling by almost half since its peak in 2009.

The North American market won’t be the 500’s saviour as FCA announced earlier this year it would axe the 500 there. There’ll still be a second-generation electric 500e, however, with production set to start at Fiat’s Mirafiori factory in the second quarter of next year.

That echoes rumoured plans of Volkswagen Group switching its Up, Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo triplets to purely electric propulsion.

Fiat could do as it’s done with the 500X crossover and moribund 500L MPV and use the heritage 500 nameplate in new segments, such as the B-segment. The car could also remain a minicar but with more premium pricing, as has previously been reported.

If only Fiat had kept the Punto up-to-date, its erstwhile B-segment offering’s third-generation spanning from 2005 all the way until 2018.

FCA chose to withdraw from the segment despite it being the largest segment by volume on the continent and more profitable than the minicar segment. Once the best-selling car in Europe, the Punto was left to get old and creaky, culminating in a disastrous zero-star Euro NCAP crash test.

The late Sergio Marchionne cited changing market conditions as the reason for Fiat’s withdrawal from the segment.

Provided the merger of FCA and PSA Group goes through, Fiat could get its hands on PSA’s Common Modular Platform underpinning the Peugeot 208 and Opel Corsa. That would once again tie Fiat’s B-segment offering to the Opel Corsa, the last generation of Punto sharing its GM Fiat Small platform with the previous generation of Corsa.

If the Panda dies and the 500 becomes exclusively an EV, it could also bring the Lancia brand down. Against all odds, Lancia has gamely clung to life, offering only the Ypsilon minicar which remains a steady seller in its home market.

It uses the same platform as the 500 and Panda, though it’s slightly larger than both in wheelbase and overall length and is positioned as a more premium offering.