Fiat and Nissan Spar Over EV Aesthetics

By · December 07, 2012

Fiat 500e and Nissan LEAF

Fiat and Nissan each see art in their small electric cars, and ugliness in the competition.

What is it about electric cars that drives rival car companies to one another’s throats?

The latest verbal sparring comes between Nissan and Fiat, after Fiat’s director of product marketing, Matt Davis, took an implied shot at the LEAF earlier this week at a launch event for the Fiat 500e. "Let's be honest, ugliness is probably one of the worst forms of pollution," said Davis. "The Fiat 500e proves that you do not have to give up on good looks to deliver an electric car."

Simon Sproule, Nissan’s head of global marketing, counterpunched a day later. "Let's face it. Fiat has not shied away from controversial styling themselves,” Sproule said to Automotive News Europe. “Many would describe many of their products as visual pollution. Take a long, hard look at the Fiat Doblo."

Okay, so maybe the recent spat between Nissan and Fiat over vehicle styling is closer to a carefully considered PR stunt than a bar fight. Still, Fiat and Nissan are by no means the first pair of companies to go at it over plug-ins.

When the LEAF was first released it came on the heels of months of barb trading between Nissan and GM over which technology would reign supreme: the Volt’s plug-in hybrid architecture or the LEAFs all-electric design. Chevy ran ads subtly denigrating the LEAF’s limited driving range, and even went so far as to copyright the term “range anxiety,” (presumably for use in future marketing efforts.) Meanwhile, Nissan ran ads starring the Volt itself as an object of buyer’s remorse, chiding the car for its reliance on gas stations.

Fiat-owned carmaker Chrysler was also involved in a controversy back in 2010, when the protagonist of the movie, The Dilemma, called electric cars “gay,” before going on to extol the virtues of Dodge muscle cars. The movie featured a healthy share of Chrysler-oriented product placement, though the carmaker refused reveal the nature of its financial arrangement with the filmmakers. Did Chrysler pay to have the line included in the film as a way of attacking GM? We may never know.

Shooting One's Own Foot

What we have learned in the almost two years that plug-ins have been a part of the mass auto market is that they are a lightning rod for controversy and derision. For a carmaker like Fiat, electric vehicles represent a challenge to the status quo—one that Fiat has been very successful operating in.

Fiat has become one of Europe’s leading carmakers largely by producing smaller, city-friendly vehicles. Plug-ins are also well suited to this purpose, though Fiat has little interest in seriously competing in the electrified vehicle market. The 500e is, by Fiat’s own admission, a compliance car that wouldn’t have made it to the drafting table if not for California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate. Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne proclaimed last year that “the economics of EVs simply don’t work,” complaining that his company would lose $10,000 for every 500e it sells.

While it may currently be true that few drivers can expect to save money over the long term by buying an electric vehicle, that won’t necessarily be the case in five or ten years. Over the long term—and success in the auto business is most certainly all about the long term—Fiat’s refusal to seriously consider mass electric vehicle production is just as much of a gamble as Nissan’s decision to dive head first into the market. Like most braggarts and bullies, Fiat’s eagerness to disparage plug-ins likely comes more from a place of insecurity than pure mean-spiritedness.

Still, one can’t help but admit that the 500e has undeniable charisma. It sort of makes you wonder how popular Fiat’s small EV could become if Fiat actually wanted it to succeed.

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