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Fiat Bets on Italian Elegance to Challenge Nissan’s Leaf

Fiat SpA (F) Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne is no champion of electric vehicles. So even if he must produce one to appease California regulators, he won’t mess with an Italian icon.

After returning to the U.S. with its 500 subcompact in 2010, Fiat plans to introduce an electric version at the Los Angeles Auto Show today. Chrysler Group LLC, majority owned by Fiat, will begin selling the battery-powered 500e next year.

Fiat is betting the car will benefit by staying close to the styling of the gasoline-powered 500 promoted by celebrities Jennifer Lopez and Charlie Sheen. That represents a departure from the strategy of Nissan Motor Co., which has struggled to draw buyers to its unconventionally styled Leaf electric car.

“Let’s be honest, ugliness is probably one of the worst forms of pollution,” Matt Davis, head of Fiat brand product marketing, told reporters this month during a briefing at Chrysler’s domed design center in its Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters. “The Fiat 500e proves that you do not have to give up on good looks to deliver an electric car.”

The 500e joins General Motors Co. (GM)’s Chevrolet Spark EV and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW)’s i Concept among electrics at the Los Angeles show, opening to the media today. California, which has accounted for more than 11 percent of U.S. auto sales this year, requires the biggest automakers to sell increasing numbers of what it calls zero-emission vehicles.
Losing $14,000

Marchionne, 60, has said natural gas and diesel engines and more efficient conventional powertrains are better options for creating greener cars than plug-in hybrids or electrics. While the company hasn’t set a price for the 500e, Marchionne in October said Fiat will lose about $14,000 on each one it sells.

So far, Nissan and other manufacturers of electrics have struggled to line up buyers. Deliveries of Nissan’s Leaf fell 16 percent to 6,791 this year through October, according to Autodata Corp. The Japanese automaker won’t reach this year’s sales target of 20,000, CEO Carlos Ghosn told Bloomberg Television this month.
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