Made in Italy, coming to a driveway near you

COSTA MESA — They're bigger than a Smart car, smaller than a Mini Cooper, and they're rolling into Orange County this week.

The Orange Coast Fiat dealership, the first of its kind for this area in decades, officially opened Tuesday amid ongoing construction. The dealership is selling variants of the 500, a tiny car with bold Italian styling that is helping Fiat reenter the United States market after a long absence.

However, the dealership on Harbor Boulevard has actually been doing business for a few months and already has 15 car orders, said Orange Coast President Jonathan Gray.

Once plans were announced in December to import the Italian-made cars, Gray said there was immediate excitement.

"People here love their cars, and they love style," Gray said. "They're passionate about looks, clothes, lifestyle, everything. Italian design is super passionate, personal and everything that people love."

The Fiat dealership took over the dealership space formerly occupied by Jeep. Gray moved the Jeep lot down the street, where his family-owned Orange Coast Auto Group also holds dealerships for Chrysler, and Dodge vehicles.

Fiat has since taken a large, controlling stake in Chrysler.

Right now, the Costa Mesa dealership has about 10 cars on the lot available for viewing or test drives, but about 40 more will be rolling in before the end of the month.

The available cars only have manual transmissions, a European preference, but that hasn't stopped people from test driving or buying them.

Three buyers actually learned to drive using a stick-shift rather than waiting for the automatic versions, which are expected to arrive soon, said Randy Redmon, dealership studio lead.

"That's excitement — they learned to adapt to the car," Redmon said. "One guy stalled five times trying to get out of the parking lot to test drive."

The cars get about 40 miles per gallon and start at under $16,000. Customers can customize their own Fiat, choosing from three models — Pop, Lounge or Sport — 14 exterior colors, 14 seat colors and six wheel styles.

"That's part of the fun and ownership experience of Fiat," Gray said. "You get the feeling of, 'This is mine. I made it fun and unique.'"

Some of the cars' features are tailor-made for the American consumer — namely the safety airbags that protect the knees (as per U.S. safety standards), glove boxes, and larger seats and cup holders — Redmon said.

While the Fiat is small compared to an SUV, Americans have already shown that they're ready for smaller cars by their support of the Smart car, Redmon said.

And the cars have a touch of attitude that appeals to many buyers, he said.

"It drives like a little race car," Redmon said.

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