• Sep 26, 2010

"Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
Its the only way to live in cars ..." Singing Gary Numan lyrics from "Cars" might be the only reasonable thing to do while considering the graveyard of one-hit-wonder automobiles. After all, the Brit singer was a bit of a one-hitter himself. It's almost a perfect union.

What is a one-hit-wonder vehicle? It's a car built and sold with fewer than a handful of model years and no or limited refreshes, redesigns or updates. The pomp and circumstance upon its debut, however, was likely the stuff of legend. The next big thing! And then... Poof, nothing. Ask your friends and you'll get a smattering of vehicles that fit the bill – the reality is that automakers rarely produce hit products. In fact, car companies are more like venture capitalists: They place a lot of bets and hope that one of them turns up to be the next big thing. (Think: Ford F-150, Honda Accord and Toyota Prius. These are the closest things in the auto biz to a hit like Google, Twitter or Facebook.)

My friends were filled with suggestions. They lambasted the Chrysler Prowler, Chevy HHR, and even the PT Cruiser. I would submit that the PT had too long a life and sold too many to be a true one-hit-wonder -- but it's close.

Click to open the gallery of cars I've dubbed one-hit wonders.

So why did these vehicles show early promise and then fail? The top 3 reasons are:

1. Design
2. Engineering/Quality
3. Wrong vehicle at the wrong time

If we look at these criteria, can we predict accurately if a new vehicle will succeed or be relegated to the one-hit heap? It's certainly possible. Take the anticipated launch of the Fiat (or is it Chrysler-Fiat?) 500. Some reviewers think it has a fighting chance. When you look at photos of the 2011 Fiat 500, (INSERT PHOTO) you can see why this article and others spend so much time comparing this car to the Mini Cooper. That comparison alone is a positive feat for Fiat given Mini's success and clear separation from the one-hit crowd. But, the 500 will have to overcome some long-held perceptions in the U.S. spawned as a result of Fiat's last attempt at winning over Americans, which went anything but well.

If we review the car on the one-hit basis, we get a pretty clear picture:

1. Design
Pros: Reminiscent of Mini, Euro styling
Cons: Too cute?

2. Engineering/Quality
Pros: Success in Europe, improved quality
Cons: A Mexican Fiat plant will eventually build the U.S.-bound 500s. It's unknown if they can produce quality like the market demands.

3. Right vehicle for the time
Pros: Recession + economy car = success
Cons: While people are cost conscious they also are tired of sacrificing space. If the fuel economy comes in as expected (up to 60 mpg for the Multijet diesel), it could be well positioned if we hit another fuel spike (and who knows when that will happen).

With horsepower somewhere around 100 and anticipated fuel economy rating of 40 mpg for the gasoline engine or up to 60 for the diesel, coupled with a stylish design and sufficient quality, I would give the Fiat 500 a "buy" rating. In fact, it's been selling well in Europe, but we have to balance that with the fact that cars there are much smaller by nature.

Fiat would be smart to begin marketing the vehicle to its target audience now to warm the skeptics up to Fiat's re-entry in the U.S. Young people will likely be a key demographic and if Fiat gets the car in front of them now, they could do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of perception and acceptance well before the car actually hits the ground.

If we look at Mini's success, BMW did much the same, finding unique places to showcase the vehicle playing off its design and small size. One of my favorites was seeing it on a merry-go-round type of contraption in a mall one day. Mini also did a great job recruiting the youth to really talk the car up for them. Personalization, stickers attached to print ads, online adaptation and games were all hallmarks of the Mini's marketing success that kept on going well after its launch. This is in large contrast to the PT Cruiser. While a novelty at the onset, the marketing quickly dried up and the vehicle was left to hang in the breeze.

If Fiat learns from these past successes and takes into account its target audience, media preferences and the idea that success is in the hands of those customers, they will start the conversation with prospective customers now. If they do that, they too can escape the one-hit heap.

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