Robocars are almost here, right? Not so fast

On the crowded streets of Tokyo, Nissan Motor has just shown us a prototype Infiniti Q50 sedan loaded with the latest version of ProPILOT Technology. It’s a preview of the real-world version of ProPILOT promised for 2020.

Dial up a destination in the navigation system, and ProPILOT will drive you there, all by itself. Clogged city streets, wide-open highways? No matter. That’s Nissan’s promise.

The cockpit of Infiniti’s ProPilot prototype.

What makes this possible? The hardware includes a staggering array of sonars, cameras, millimeter-wave radars and laser scanners. They feed real-time information into a computer brain loaded with complicated algorithms designed to sort out a massive pile of non-stop data. ProPILOT speedily and continuously processes the data, makes non-stop decisions and spits out a self-driven route on a high-definition map – a route that can change instantly based on road conditions, weather, traffic patterns, pedestrians and any manner of other factors.

Nissan – like everyone else working on self-driving technology – promises robocars that deliver peace of mind and convenience. It’ll be safe.  It’ll be seamless. You’ll love it!

Toyota Motor’s Lexus division is among the many making such claims. A new concept luxury sedan called the LS+ Concept offers a vision automated driving technologies and artificial intelligence that will be available as early as 2020.

Lexus says a strength of its approach is artificial intelligence (AI) that communicates with a data centre. The car’s AI learns from “big data, including information on roads and surrounding areas” to ensure “a high level of automated driving.”

The LS+ Concept offers a vision automated driving technologies and artificial intelligence.

Nissan and Toyota are among the horde of automakers and suppliers who are aggressively promoting the inevitability of self-driving cars. It’s not about if, but when.

They all argue that self-driving cars will make for safer roads, and an end to snarled traffic. Robocars will free commuters of the stop-and-go grind and allow long-distance drivers to sleep safely behind the wheel – if there even is a wheel in the cars of the future.

REGULATORS ON BOARD

The powerful U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the key regulator in all this, has asked automakers and technology companies to identify “any unnecessary regulatory barriers to automated safety technologies.”

NHTSA, it seems, wants to clear the path for self-driving cars. And given the official Canadian Government policy is to harmonize regulations as much as possible with the U.S., self-driving cars are coming to Canada very soon, too.

THE RACE IS ON

Which of course is great news for Infiniti’s parent, Nissan Motor, as well as the very long list of carmakers and suppliers racing to make drivers redundant. Takao Asami, Nissan’s senior vice president of research and advanced engineering, is one of many making bold pronouncements.

The Chevrolet Bolt in San Francisco with Jeremy Cato.

“Today’s demonstration is another example of our successful work toward creating an autonomous driving future for all,” he said of the Q50 prototype on Tokyo’s streets.

General Motors, for its part, says it is a world leader in self-driving technology – if not THE world leader. CEO Mary Barra has not been shy about touting the company’s technological achievements.

“GM and Cruise Automation recently deployed our latest generation self-driving electric test vehicle,” Barra said on a conference call. “We believe it will meet the redundancy and safety requirements necessary to operate without a driver.”

Cruise Automation plans to make a major announcement in this area on Nov. 28, in fact, further underscoring the leadership position GM continues to tout. GM has a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt EVs (electric vehicles) testing its self-driving technology on the streets of San Francisco. All this has not been missed.

“We think GM’s proactive approach is allowing the company to move faster than most peers, with in-house (intellectual property) related to electric drivetrains, shared vehicle platforms, and autonomous vehicle hardware/software,” Piper Jaffray analyst Alexander Potter says in a recent note.

GM, Nissan and others are part of a crowded field that is working to make autonomous vehicles a reality, and soon. The autonomous vehicle industry is highly competitive and shockingly interconnected. In California’s high-tech hotbed, Silicon Valley, more than 40 companies are grinding through the challenges facing self-driving cars and their adoption.

These companies include Intel,  Nvidia, Waymo, Tesla,  Uber Technologies and even Samsung. All and more have secured permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on public roads.

THE GLOBAL RACE TO AUTONOMY

This is a global race, not one confined to the San Francisco Bay Area, either.

A survey from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research found that German car manufacturers and supplier firms had filed way more patents for self-driving cars than most other global automotive companies. From 2010 to 2017 a total of 5,839 autonomous-driving patents were filed by carmakers and suppliers. Fifty-two per cent of globally registered patents for autonomous driving came from German companies.

Still, there is a feeling that the rest of the world outside Silicon Valley is playing catch-up. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, the battery-car company, has been a pioneer in autonomous technology. It’s Autopilot system is well-regarded and Tesla has collected a great deal of on-the-road, real-world data on autonomous technology through its electronic connection to owners.

For all its data mining, however, some believe that for technical reasons Tesla is falling behind, even as the company says its vehicles will be able to drive from Los Angeles to New York City without a “single touch” by the end of the year.

Rivals argue that because Tesla’s vehicles do not have something called LIDAR and cannot be equipped with LIDAR without a hardware upgrade, the Silicon Valley start-up is in trouble.

LIDAR? The acronym stands for Light Detection and Ranging. LIDAR uses pulsed laser – light pulses – to measure distances, and when combined with other data from cameras and GPS systems, allows the most advanced self-driving systems to generate precise, three-dimensional information.

Audi, for instance, will launch a new, LIDAR-equipped A8 premium sedan with Level 3 autonomy starting next year. Audi’s Level 3 tech will allow the A8 to carry on autonomously at speeds up to 60 km/hour or 37 mph. BMW says it will launch Level 3 in 2021, good for speeds up 129 km/hour or 80 mph.

The staggering complexity of reaching Level 3 requires LIDAR and a camera in the instrument cluster, monitoring the driver, according to BMW, Audi and others. Tesla’s Model S and X, as well as the Model 3, cannot be software-updated to Level 3 autonomy; they don’t have LIDAR. Instead, Tesla’s Autopilot relies on radar and cameras to provide data for the car’s computer brain.

Level 3 autonomy allows the driver to look away from the road ahead for brief moments, but provides for prompts that snap the driver back into control immediately when required. The A8 is the first production car available with LIDAR and it’s intended as an antidote for painful stop-and-go driving.

BMW for its part, believes in LIDAR, arguing that its iNext system, to debut in 2021, will take autonomy to a higher level, still. Those going the LIDAR route argue that it’s the most complete and safety route to self-driving cars, though things like a camera to monitor the driver are also required.

Tesla, however, has said LIDAR is not only “exceptionally expensive,” but also has other drawbacks. LIDAR requires four or more devices mounted on the vehicle to get 360-degree coverage and even then, and LIDAR doesn’t detect colour or light. So LIDAR-quipped vehicles will still need cameras to detect taillights and stoplights, for instance. Tesla says LIDAR may prove to be an unnecessary and costly approach.

“Radar and cameras may do a better job, as the radar work in conditions where LIDAR and cameras will not (fog, snow, heavy rain, etc.),” says Tesla in a blog post on the pros and cons of these sorts of technologies.

YOUNG PEOPLE WANT SELF-DRIVING CARS

Virtually everyone agrees that the youthful wave of new-car consumers want self-driving cars. A recent Edmunds study reported by Bloomberg had some startling though predictable numbers.

Some 40 per cent of Millennials age 33 and younger would be willing to buy a robocar in the next five years. Less than 20 percent of Millennials would never consider a self-driving car at all. That’s in sharp contrast to 55-plus drivers, half of which would never let a robocar take over the driving.

SELF-DRIVING CARS ARE ALREADY HERE – SORT OF

Except, of course, many Baby Boomers and such are already using early forms of self-driving technologies. As the Detroit Free Press notes, early forms of autonomous technology have been steadily creeping into mainstream models. Active safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection and automatic parking are now available on more than 60 per cent of new models.

“While there are a number of ways one can define who’s ‘leading’ in the race to autonomy, analyzing the prevalence of active safety features demonstrates just how ready (automakers) are to bring this technology to mass production, and how willing consumers are to adopt it,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.

Just consider: Edmunds notes that among 2017 models, Tesla leads the pack for offering active safety features with 57, followed by Volvo with 47 and Honda at 37. At the bottom, Mitsubishi (3) offers the fewest, behind Fiat Chrysler (7). Nissan and General Motors were tied with 13 and Ford offers 14.

WHAT’S IN THE WAY OF SELF-DRIVING CARS

The road to self-driving is littered with potential roadblocks, however. Jason Levine, the new head of the Center for Auto Safety, tells The Detroit News that fully autonomous cars are “a long way off,” adding that all the latest hype overlooks the reality of all the cars in “someone’s driveway today.” That is, the new self-driving cars must share the road with millions and millions of older cars piloted exclusively by humans.

Regulators, says Levine, create rules based on copious safety data and both real-world and controlled test data. Among many things, regulators will be looking for proof that robocars are safer than traditional cars driven by live human beings.

There is also the issue of cybersecurity. What will the car companies do to ensure that your automated vehicle won’t be hacked, with not just privacy implications in play, but the actual safety of those on board and others sharing the road.

Some other questions to be answered, barriers to be overcome:

  • How will automated vehicles navigate roads crowded with non-automated cars, pedestrians and bicycles. Which groups and individuals get priority in difficult and dangerous circumstances?
  • What about the economics of self-driving cars? For instance, if millions of truck drivers are replaced by self-driving technology, what happens to them, and the broad highway network of truck stops, motels, service centres and the like? Automation causes dramatic workforce displacement and the promise of economic disruption.
  • Litigation: When two autonomous vehicles collide, who’s liable? When an autonomous vehicle collides with a car piloted by a human, who’s responsible? When systems fail or are fooled by various circumstances, who gets the blame?

Yes, it certainly appears that self-driving cars are coming. They seem inevitable. We are promised that they will be here sooner, not later. But will we be ready for them, and all the disruption they bring?

Read more

Dieselgate: rival car companies claim the high ground

On a late summer day in Detroit, Mich., a disgraced Volkswagen engineer named James Robert Liang left a courtroom after being sentenced to a 40-month prison sentence for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Government as part of a global scandal that some believe has permanently besmirched and undermined diesel powertrains around the world.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox with its diesel engine: GM claims performance and high technology.

So, is diesel dead? Bear with me.

First, consider the case of Liang. U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox said VW was cheating and worked to cover it up. “The conspiracy perpetrated a massive … and stunning fraud on the American consumer that attacked and destroyed the very foundation of our economic system,” Cox said.

Yes, but Liang was not president of VW, or VW USA when he committed this crime. He never sat on VW’s management or supervisory boards and he never had operating responsibility for any large division of the global automaker. Indeed, no senior officer of VW has yet been convicted of a crime in this scandal.

Liang was a mid-level employee, as was Oliver Schmidt, a former manager of a VW engineering office in suburban Detroit. Schmidt will be sentenced in December after also pleading guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges related to the scandal.

VW itself pleaded guilty in March to defrauding the U.S. government and agreed to pay $4.3 billion (US) in penalties, on top of billions more to buy back cars. Other relatively low- and mid-level VW employees have been charged in the case are in Germany, so they are out of reach of U.S. prosecutors.

Earlier this year, Courts in Ontario and Quebec approved a class action settlement with Volkswagen Group Canada Inc. involving emissions from 2.0-litre TDI diesel engines in roughly 105,000 vehicles. And while affected VW owners were made eligible for payments ranging from $5,100 to $8,000, depending on the model and age of the vehicle, the class settlement is apparently not an admission of liability by Volkswagen.

But the scandal in Canada is not over. In September, Investigators for Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change raided the headquarters of Volkswagen Canada. They executed a search warrant as part of the international investigation into “cheat devices” meant to evade emissions regulations. So far, no official of VW Canada has been accused or charged with any wrongdoing.

And around the world?

To date, VW the corporation has agreed to settlements with consumers and government agencies around the world worth more than of $30 billion (US) and counting. These are costs shareholders ultimately bear. If you own a stake in VW, you are paying a price for the scandal.

VW, I should note, is not alone.

For example, in late summer, VW, Daimler and BMW agreed to upgrade around five million newer diesel cars in Germany and offer trade-in rebates on older models in a deal to avoid more costly remedies and salvage diesel technology and avoid driving bans in cities, Bloomberg reported.

But the Dieselgate scandal has not led to charges or convictions of a single senior executive or board member of any automaker. Not one. There have been resignations, but the only VW officials facing jail time are relatively junior executives and engineers – what you might call rank-and-file car company  “grunts” working in the trenches.

The lack of accountability at the top of carmakers is itself a scandal. It strains credulity to think that no one in a senior position at VW or any other carmaker has had knowledge of the depth and breadth of the cheating and the cover-up that has affected millions of diesel passenger vehicles.

And this is a core reason why so many consumers lack confidence in diesel engines. They’ve seen how easy it apparently was to cheat the system and cover it up for years. And they recognize that the only heads to roll belong to workers in the trenches.

Into this environment, General Motors is making a renewed push to position diesel as a viable technology that is cost-effective and rewarding for consumers who want strong powertrain performance – performance that is particularly good for towing and long-range driving. Indeed, modern diesel technology offers more power while emitting about 15 per cent less carbon dioxide than equivalent gasoline engines.

Dan Nicholson, GM global vice president of global propulsion systems, argues that for the time being, diesels are well-positioned to “play a role in GM’s fuel economy efforts.” Diesel delivers 20 per cent more energy per litre, compared to gasoline, he notes. So it’s a more efficient fuel and current diesel pump prices make it significantly more economical than gasoline.

The question is, why should consumers believe that GM is producing and selling diesels that do not “game” emissions tests? It’s a fair question. And it is the perfect question to put to Nicholson. And as the penalties to Laing and Schmidt demonstrate, he is precisely the sort of car company employee most likely to suffer jail time in any cheating scandal.

“I have worked my whole career at GM, and I can tell you integrity runs through the leadership and individuals at this company,” says Nicholson. GM, starting with CEO Mary Barra, now enjoys the best leadership in the company’s history, he adds. From Barra down, leadership is committed to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. It’s easy for anyone who sees wrongdoing at GM to speak up, he says, insisting that what happened at VW can and will not happen at GM.

“Not all companies are like that,” says Nicholson, clearly alluding to VW. He adds that his own personal credibility and that of GM is at stake when he and other company officials say GM’s diesels meet the highest standards for emissions compliance, performance and quality.

“I am not willing to work at a company that does not back up its employees and I am not willing to go to jail and will bring up any issue” related to cheating or scandal, Nicholson says forcefully.

At GM, diesel is alive and well and it has an interim role in the long-range fuel efficiency and climate change initiatives at the big automaker.

 

 

Read more

Daimler, not Tesla, points to the auto industry’s future

I have lately been testing a parade of Mercedes-Benz and smart cars – from a fortwo cabriolet the size of microwave oven to a sporty little SLC 300 hardtop convertible; a GLE sport-utility; an E-Class sedan and coupe; and, even an exquisitely imposing S550 convertible hardtop.

Mercedes-Benz Concept X-CLASS

I’ve not spent much time in a muscular sprinter van, popular with police breathalyzer units, and the smaller Metris van remains untested, too. But I can say that both are very good fleet values, according to the research firm Vincentric.

Point is, Daimler AG has been delivering a steady stream of new Mercedes, smart and Freightliner models for years now. They come in all shapes and sizes, and across price ranges: the smart fortwo starts at $17,300 while a Maybach S600 starts at $232,400.

In the heart of the Canadian market, Merc has its Honda Accord-fighter, the CLA, not to mention the B-Class station wagon. They run in the mid-$30,000s and up. Merc, while a luxury brand, has managed to cover an impressive swath of the marketplace. Rival BMW AG surely must have noticed.

Mercedes, in fact, passed BMW last year to become the world’s No. 1 premium car brand in the world. Why is quite simple: Mercedes has unleashed a torrent of new products in the last few years, while BMW’s new model cadence has been slower and certainly more haphazard.

Mercedes-AMG SLC 43

I believe BMW has become sidetracked by its floundering i-Brand of electric cars and hybrids. The “greening” of BMW seems to have sapped the Bavarian company of energy and enthusiasm for what buyers want today, right now.

BMW has spent billions on the i-Brand and related “green” initiatives with not much to show for it in sales, revenue and profits. At least for now. The result: the gang in Munich could only wave as waved Mercedes passed them in the fast lane.

Daimler hasn’t been mortgaging the future to fund the present, however. No, the company is plowing billions into electrification and hybrids and cleaner assembly lines and all the rest, while also growing sales and revenue, and maintaining very healthy profit margins. True, Daimler has been caught in a worrisome diesel emissions scandal that reeks of collusion among car companies from Germany. This could end up costing Daimler dearly. Regardless, it’s a black eye for the company and the other German automakers involved.

The Mercedes-Benz GLA shares its platform and powertrain with the QX30.

Nonetheless, if I were an investor (and I am not, not in car companies, not any of them), I would take a closer look at Daimler. The stock is cheap and offers an appealing yield. Moreover, Daimler is investing in products, technologies and services that should make the company a formidable player in the auto industry for many years to come.

Consider: Daimler is making a $10 billion investment in electric vehicles and plans to roll out 10 new electrified passenger cars by 20200. Daimler estimates electric vehicles will account for 15-25 per cent of Mercedes-Benz sales by 2025.

Daimler is also building its own in-house battery (take note, Tesla), is developing an electric semi for its Freightliner division, and is moving quickly to take advantage of the rapidly emerging importance of electrified vehicles in the world’s biggest car market, China.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class: used to chase Jason Bourne.

In China, Daimler is working to expand its presence in a joint venture that is being called Beijing Benz Automotive. Daimler and its Chinese partner, BAIC, plan to produce Mercedes-branded battery electric vehicles (BEV) by 2020, while also developing a deep and rich research and development presence in China.

This brings me to autonomous driving technology, where Daimler is a world leader. That’s good. Also good is Daimler’s vision for the smart brand. Smart is the tip of the spear for car-sharing and city car initiatives.

More immediately, if you’re a car buyer today, well, Mercedes quality is world class and resale values are excellent. Indeed, the Mercedes brand is strong and valuable and Daimler’s global infrastructure is good for owners and poses a formidable competitive challenge for all luxury brands.

The AMG GT is one of the very hot AMG products from Mercedes-Benz — so hot they’re driving sales to great heights.

Daimler isn’t the darling of investors, though, just consumers. Indeed, Daimler’s stock market capitalization is a relatively modest $64.76 billion. Tesla, you might wish to know, has a market cap of $58.63 billion (all figures in U.S. dollars).

This, of course, makes no sense. Daimler did $153 billion in sales last year and earned a profit of $8.53 billion. Tesla’s sales amounted to just $7 billion. Not surprisingly, Tesla lost $674.91 million.

Daimler is a juggernaut, but Tesla is the toast of Wall Street and a legion of true believers. You may go ahead and be entertained by Tesla and its Tweeting, starlet-dating CEO, Elon Musk. But if you want to know where the auto industry is headed, watch Daimler.

Read more

Volvo signals the age of EVs has really and truly arrived

This was inevitable.

Volvo Cars has jolted the car market, announcing that every new model it launches from 2019 will be electrified in some way. If anyone ever doubted, it’s clear now that we are witnessing a global shift to electrified vehicles (EV). The internal combustion engine (ICE) that’s dominated the industry for more

Håkan Samuelsson – President & CEO, Volvo Car Group

than 100 years isn’t dead. Not yet. But we can all now see its inevitable end.

Volvo’s move, however, should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows and understands the company and the broader marketplace in which the auto industry competes for customers – and government approval. By that I mean car companies around the world must deal with ever-tightening environmental regulations and they – and customers — are also chasing government subsidies and favours of all sorts.

But let’s start with Volvo, a Chinese company based in Europe and owned by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd. Volvo is an upmarket European brand bought out of near-bankruptcy from Ford Motor seven years ago for the bargain-basement price of $1.8 billion (US).

Volvo, then, straddles the two largest new-car markets in the world (the U.S. is No. 3). And both China and Europe have fully embraced the electrification of the automobile.

Let’s start with China, which quite clearly aims to become the world leader in EVs – in terms of production, sales and technology. The Chinese government has embraced the electrification of the automobile. China as a whole believes that technology leadership in EVs is critical for car companies to thrive in the coming decades.

Government help is rich and broad and it’s working. The Chinese government offers electric vehicle manufacturers rich subsidies – up to 50-60 per cent of the retail price of a car. Buyers, meanwhile, are exempt from sales taxes on locally-made models.

As well, local governments offer their own incentives. Owners in some places are exempt from registration fees and EV drivers often have preferred access to cities. And the Chinese authorities have been busy rolling out recharging networks across the country.

Today, China is the world’s largest market for electric vehicles. Last year, EV sales hit 409,000 units, up 65 per cent from 2015, reports the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM). Another 98,000 plug-in hybrids were also sold. Thus, sales of these so-called “new-energy” vehicle hit 507,000 units, for a 53 per cent year-on-year jump.

T8 Twin Engine – Electric AWD

China has more EVs in use than any country or region. Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, notes there are 600,000 all-electric vehicles on China’s roads. The plan is to get to 5.0 million EVs by 2010. Europe has about 500,000 EVs on its roads, with the U.S. at fewer than 500,000.

Ah, Europe. As The Guardian notes, European governments prefer the stick — legislation – over the carrot — subsidies — to electrify the automotive fleet.

Wolfgang Bernhart of the consulting firm Roland Berger told The Guardian that the European Union has set mandatory emissions-reduction targets that will lead to a 40 per cent average emissions reduction in all new cars sold by 2021. The only way to get there is to adopt EVs quickly and on a large scale.

Which is precisely what Volvo is doing.  Volvo will launch five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, three of which will be Volvo models and two of which will be high performance electrified cars from Polestar. Sales of older pre-2019 gasoline vehicles could extend out to 2025. Volvo hopes to sell 1.0 million electric or hybrid cars globally by 2025.

Volvo and Tesla are the only major automakers to make a 100 per cent EV commitment. But long-term success in the auto industry depends on innovation and the next battleground will be electric vehicles.

Thus, the three leading German carmakers, Volkswagen, Daimler (parent of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW are particularly focused on Tesla, arguably the world leader in if not EVs, certainly in creating a drumbeat of interest and expectations in them. Add Volvo to this list, along with the Nissan-Renault Alliance.

Volkswagen, coming off the smear of the “Dieselgate” scandal, says it will “leapfrog Tesla in the electric car race. The goal is to sell more than 1.0 million battery driven vehicles by 2025.

Daimler is accelerating its $10 billion (US) investment in electric vehicles. The goal is to launch 10 new electric car models by the year 2022. BMW has similar plans, the most interesting piece of which is the all-electric 3-Series to be introduced this fall.

The 3-Series EV is aimed at the Tesla Model 3. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, through his Twitter account, says the first Model 3 will roll off the assembly line Friday, July 7 – wearing serial number 001. A “handover party” for the first 30 customers is planned for July 28. Musk suggests that it “looks like” Tesla could be producing as many as 20,000 Model 3s a month by the end of the year.

Other automakers, of course, are committed to EVs. General Motors has successfully launched the Chevrolet Bolt and more EVs are planned. Jaguar is now testing its all-electric iPace crossover wagon. Nissan is about to launch an all-new LEAF EV – the world’s best-selling EV by far. Toyota is now committed to a quick expansion of its EV lineup, as is Honda. And so on.

Volvo, though, has set the EV standard among established automakers with a long history. Given the nature of the Volvo brand, its parent company and where Volvo competes most aggressively, this was inevitable.

As is the steady push to a world in which EVs dominate.

 

Read more

Fiat brand in crisis

Some have argued that the 1957 Fiat 500, known then as the Nuova 500, was “a piece of genius.” That’s how BBC’s Top Gear put it, adding that because this car was so novel and innovative, the 500 “set the pace” for future bits of automotive brilliance like the 1959 Austin Mini.

The current 2017 Fiat 500c side-by-side with the original.

Indeed, Top Gear concluded that “the Fiat 500 is the greatest car in the world.”  Top Gear is hardly alone. Edmunds.com, in fact, ranks the original Cinquecento No. 25 on its list of the Greatest 100 Cars of All Time.

Most who know these things agree that the 500 of the ‘50s is a classic, — a clever conjuring of creativity borne of economic crisis. Here was Fiat’s solution to the financial limits of a country and people rebuilding after WW II. The Cinquecento, of course, was the answer to Italy’s post-war middle class transportation needs.

In 2017 when we think of Fiat, minds race to the 500, a cheap and tiny little car that arrived with an appealing look and an incredibly flexible design. Sure, Fiat made a coupe and convertible 500, but there were also sporty versions like the R, and bigger, even more practical ones like the 500 Giardiniera wagon from 1960-1975 and a panel van called the 500 Furgoncino.

I suppose some also associate Fiat with truly gorgeous cars. The 124 Spider from 1966-82, the 1200 Turismo Veloce, convertible and the Fiat Dino Coupe come to mind. Any discussion of Fiat needs to include the 124 sedan, a collaboration with the old Soviet government that also spun off the Lada or Zhiguli. And who can forget the 1960 600 Multipla, a six-passenger mini minivan that was the perfect taxi.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider and 1968 Fiat 124 Spider

But let’s be honest: Fiat is the 500. Fiat Chrysler (FCA) officials in North America appear to have had only a superficial understanding of all this when they relaunched Fiat here in 2012.

They positioned the 500 as a kind of sporty design statement worthy of a premium price, not a bargain-basement, mass-market line of runabouts aimed at younger buyers who crave style but lack cash. Today, the least expensive 500 lists for more than $19,000. That’s a crazy price.

Worse, FCA has failed to get the quality right. Fiat finished dead last in the just-released J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. Earlier this year, Fiat also was at the very bottom of J.D. Power’s long-

124 Special Sedan: a joint venture with the old Soviets. Can you say Lada?

term Vehicle Dependability Study. Fiat also mined the deepest depths of Consumer Reports’ 2017 Brand Report Card. Shoddy workmanship at a premium price is not a formula for success.

And so Fiat in Canada remains the most niche of niche brands. To date, just 1,752 Canadians have bought some sort of Fiat. In fairness, Canadian sales are up 71 per cent on the year, but that only shows how bad things were in 2016.

Fiat’s current Canadian lineup has been boosted by the latest 124 Spider, a joint venture roadster with Mazda that is a treat to drive and a pleasure to see. But it starts at $33,495.

2017 Fiat 500L Trekking: the definition of ugly.

Fiat also sells a little all-wheel-drive SUV, the 500X ($30,950 base). This is Fiat’s version of Jeep’s Renegade. Neither is a design masterpiece and both drive like pigs. This joint venture SUV within the FCA family has been a stunning disappointment.

Delicious: 1959 Fiat 1200 Turismo Veloce Spider.

And then we have the 500L, a long-wheelbase, four-door 500 that starts at $25,245. This may not be the ugliest car for sale in Canada today, but if it isn’t, what is?

Fiat in 2017, then, is a mess. The basic 500 two-door, coupe and convertible, has a certain charm, but the lineup top to bottom is just too expensive.

2017 Fiat 500X Trekking: handles like a pig.

Yes, I’ve had loads of fun tossing about the 500 Abarth, but it’s nearly $30,000 to start. Yikes. The 500L is a visual catastrophe, the 500X is the automotive equivalent of a root canal and the 124 Spider is nice but hardly novel. Mazda has been selling the MX-5 Miata for decades.

Fiat in 2017, at least in North America, is a brand in crisis. Today’s lineup has nothing in common with the greatness of the 500 in 1957, other than a name and some design cues. It is not a work of genius by any measure. As a whole, the 500 can be fairly called an over-priced, poorly-built collection of grocery-getters.

Perhaps it’s impossible to reimagine Fiat for today’s North American buyer by digging into the truly great roots of the brand – creative designs at spectacularly affordable prices. If that’s the case, Fiat won’t be here in Canada for much longer.

 

 

Read more