TURIN - Fiat has entered the hot new compact minivan segment with an odd-shaped MPV that has met with sharply divided opinion.
The six-seat Multipla goes on sale this month in Italy, Holland and Belgium. The Renault Megane Scenic is its main target. Sales begin early next year in Germany, France and other countries. Right-hand drive versions for the UK and Ireland will arrive in late 1999.
Others will soon join the new small minivan segment, including the Mitsubishi Space Star, General Motors' Zafira, and the Citroen Picasso. But the Multipla is the first direct competitor for the Scenic, which is selling at twice the level that Renault expected when it launched the car two years ago.
Fiat showed a Multipla prototype at the Paris auto show in October, 1996 to help prepare the market for its unusual appearance.
'It is astonishing that the production Multipla did not change from the original concept car,' said Philippe Rosengarten, an analyst at DRI/McGrawHill in London. 'The bold design is a risk.'
The 4000mm MPV has two rows of three seats. It is as wide as Fiat Auto's biggest car, the Lancia Kappa, yet no longer that a Brava hatchback. 'The idea was inspired by marketing considerations, then worked out with design and engineering people who added their ideas,' said Giuseppe Scagliola, Fiat's director of platform development.
He said that the Multipla is risky because there were no compromises in its concept and design. He said that customer acceptance for innovative or even provocative concepts is greater today.
Scagliola said the Multipla won't be positioned merely as a six-seater, but as a versatile answer to many transportation needs. Still, sales objectives are conservative. Fiat plans to sell no more than 15-20 percent of the volume of the Scenic.
'An annual volume of 100,000 would be too much, so we calculated to break even at around 40,000 cars,' said Scagliola. 'But personally I would not be surprised to sell 75,000 annually.'
Rosengarten is not so sure. 'We expect Fiat to sell 33,500 in 1999, but then 19,500 in 2000,' he said.
Scagliola said 80 percent of the first full year's output will be sold in Italy, with Germany and France taking much of the rest.
Fiat expects to produce 40,000-60,000 units in the first year. Production is currently running at 130 units per day at Fiat's Mirafiori plant and will be increased gradually through the end of the year.
The Multipla is priced about the same as the Scenic. In Holland, the lowest-price version, a 1.6 liter, 16-valve gasoline model, is 39,950 guilders ($21,400), compared with 38,200 guilders ($20,400) for the 1.6-liter version of the five-seat Scenic. A 1.9 liter common-rail diesel Multipla is 47,400 guilders ($25,300), compared to 45,995 guilders ($24,600) for the 1.9-liter Scenic with conventional diesel.
'It is a calculated risk,' said Scagliola. 'Because of the innovative features, we felt our dealers had to know well in advance what we were doing, so we informed them at an early stage.'
Opinions within the network are sharply divided, said Andre Compier, sales manager at U.A.M., a Fiat dealer in Utrecht, Netherlands.
'Customers with two or three children who appreciate novel design are interested, but we have doubts about Fiat's promotional and marketing efforts,' he said.
Koehler Schmidt, sales manager at Autopalazzo in Stuttgart, is more hopeful.
'This car has good chances, even if half of the potential customers might dislike its design,' he said. 'But the six-seat configuration and flexible seating arrangements are unique.'