Car enthusiasts tend to be patriotic. They might enjoy models from all over the world, especially sporty ones, but they’ll always have a special adoration for the automakers which were founded in their homeland — even if it doesn’t produce sporty cars. Such joy is experienced by natives of almost all countries whose automotive activity has large proportions: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, North-American… that “almost” must exist mostly because of a single exception: the Brazilian natives.
Ever since its automotive industry was founded, in the 1950s, Brazil hosted manufacturers of all kinds of vehicles: generalist, sporty, small-scale, and customized. However, most of them thrived when the country was ruled by a military regime which pretty much banned imported cars. Competition was too little, so those companies never bothered to improve much. Once things went back to normal and foreign cars were allowed again, the differences of quality made the local automakers succumb in a matter of years.
Now, while it’s understandable that the lack of an officially Brazilian large company hurts, true car enthusiasts in that country will admit that the foreign companies have done a lot to try and please them. Some made deals with competitors to use their parts and/or cars under license, others invested in local production, others adapted foreign models to the local taste, others developed entirely new ones… And there’s Fiat, whose 41-year-old local operation has included all those activities and many others.
The very first car model offered in Brazil, the 147, was heavily adapted from the Italian 127 so as to better resist the local driving conditions. Over time, every model Fiat released was an attempt to bring the best of both countries. From superminis such as Uno and Palio to larger models such as Tempra and Marea, the company learned to use its Italian roots on emotional aspects, like design, marketing and performance, while leaving the Brazilian expertise to dynamic behavior, equipment lists, and costs.
Since the Brazilian branch became so important to Fiat, it became largely independent. It has developed components, facelifts and entire models by itself and produced them in two massive factories. In nowadays, it’s investing in a major revamp of its lineup: nameplates which debuted long ago, such as Palio and Punto, are being replaced with entirely new ones — regardless of whether they’ll exist in other regions as well. The latest result of that is the Argo, which will spawn the sedan that motivated this post.
As impressive as those operational facts may be, other makers have already accomplished similar ones by now. What truly makes Fiat stand out in Brazil is the aforementioned connection with the local buyer. Many of its regional products are tailored to suit needs and desires which competitors often deem too specific to deserve attention. Fiat obviously knows that such products can become strong sellers, so it attempts to make that come true by dedicating the same amount of effort to how they will be perceived.
Back in 1976, the 147 was advertised with video clips where it used multiple Brazilian tourist spots to show its capabilities. In the 1990s, the Tempra dealt with larger sedans by investing in sportiness, which has always been praised there. Twenty years later, the Toro was considered a pickup truck of “just the right size” and became an instant hit. Later, the Mobi attracted the attention of young consumers by a press conference hosted by several influencers and daytime parties at the dealers with grafitti works and parkour.
The latest event was showed through online streaming. Fiat held a race of six laps with six first-generation Uno. By the end of each lap, one of them would leave the circuit and be replaced by one of the maker’s newest concoctions — either a Toro, a Mobi or an Argo. Each of the latter would come with a letter which eventually formed “Cronos”, the name of the upcoming compact sedan. What made this event noteworthy is the fact that all those Unos raced carrying a large retractable ladder on the roof.
Right now, your thoughts are likely to be “What the…” plus a word which would probably be improper to publish. Firstly, the very use of old Unos speaks to Brazilians. After being sold locally for twenty years and surviving two potential successors, it became famous as a well-balanced option for no-frills drivers. Secondly, the ladder symbolizes the many units of this car used by companies of cable TV, electricity and telephone. Brazilians joke that it reaches otherwordly speeds when used with that purpose.
Is that too weak to motivate an entire marketing action? The joke per se might, but its meaning, not at all. Those are all elements of everyday popular culture; not the type which is famous around the world, but that which only Brazilians know, and which they only come to know through the Internet and through seeing and/or making it themselves. Fiat’s action might look like simple self-deprecating humor at first, but the truth is it’s also proof of how interested it is in understanding the Brazilian people.
Having all that said, if we want to be fair, we need to admit that none of that makes Fiat perfect. It has had its share of missteps in Brazil, and not all of them were small — the very fact that the old Uno was sold largely unchanged for so long is one. But it does deserve huge credit for working so hard to understand and respect the characteristics of a foreign society. If Brazilians give that an impartial thought, they’ll notice that Fiat has come closer to being that coveted Brazilian automaker than any other ever has.