The 2013 Fiat 500e
Patrick Rall's picture

Fiat execs poke fun at Nissan Leaf styling - Nissan fires back

When the electric Fiat 500e debuted last week at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show, Fiat/Chrysler executive Olivier Francois made an off-the-cuff comment that seemed to be directed at the exterior styling of the Nissan Leaf – a joke that has seemingly hurt the feelings of front office folks from the Japanese automaker.

This whole feud between Fiat and Nissan began due to a comment by Olivier Francois, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Marketing Officer of the Fiat brand on a global level as well as Chief Marketing Officer of the Chrysler Group here in the US. Francois is well known around the world for his flair for edgy marketing, having most recently been named a “Grand Brand Genius” by the people at Adweek so when he makes a comment that seemingly pokes fun at another automaker – people take notice.

Well, during Francois’ introduction of the new Fiat 500 Electric Vehicle at the 2012 LA Auto Show, the European marketing boss made the comment "Isn't ugliness the worst kind of pollution?” That comment was seemingly aimed at the – let’s call it unique – styling of the Nissan Leaf. This negative opinion of the Leaf styling was taken one step further by Fiat’s head of product marketing Matt Davis who told Bloomberg News that “ugliness is probably one of the worst forms of pollution. The Fiat 500e proves that you do not have to give up on good looks to deliver an electric car."

The folks at Nissan were quick to get their panties in a bunch, taking to the automotive media to fire back with a styling insult of their own. While speaking with Automotive News Europe, Nissan head of global marketing communications Simon Sproule offered his input on Fiat’s designs. "Let's face it, Fiat has not shied away from controversial styling themselves," said Sproule. "Many would describe many of their products as visual pollution. Take a long, hard look at the Fiat Doblo."

While many people around the world may agree with Sproule’s assessment of the Ford Transit Connect fighting Fiat Doblo, the fact of the matter is that this is all about electric vehicle styling with the Fiat 500e and the Nissan Leaf going head to head. There is no question that the exterior styling of the Fiat 500 on a global level has been far more popular than the styling of the Nissan Leaf – a fact accentuated by the fact that Fiat has sold over a million copies of the modern 500 on which the 500e styling is based. Through the first 11 months of the 2012 calendar year, Fiat has sold over 40,000 copies of the 500 in the US alone while Nissan has only sent out 9,830 copies of the Leaf over the same span of time in the US. I should point out that the Fiat 500 is far less expensive than the Leaf, it comes in far more trimlines and variations than the Leaf and it is offered in a much higher number of markets than the Leaf so a comparison isnt exactly fair but when it comes down to the popularity of the styling between the Fiat 500e and the Nissan Leaf – the compact Fiat seems to be a far more successful model.

Sproule went on to point out that Fiat is not as heavily invested in the electric vehicle movement as Nissan and that the new Fiat 500e was a “me too” EV, designed and produced only to conform to US government regulations. He lambasted the 500e for the fact that it does not offer the interior space of the Leaf but for a single person shopping for a new electric vehicle, the compact, less expensive Fiat 500e may be a popular choice over the Leaf when that extra cargo and passenger space is not a priority. There is also the fact that the electric Fiat will likely cost quite a bit less than the Leaf.

Unfortunately for Sproule and the rest of the crew at Nissan, the opinion expressed by Francois and Davis is fairly common among the consumer market. Especially in terms of American exterior styling preferences, the Nissan Leaf is an odd-looking vehicle and that could be one of the things hurting sales of the Japanese EV in the US. Don’t get me wrong – the Leaf is unquestionably the best mass produced all electric vehicle available in the US today. However, sales are down from one year ago for the Leaf while the extended range Chevrolet Volt EV continues to see numbers grow significantly. One Chevy Volt own with whom I spoke recently said that aside from the fact that he can rely on the gasoline engine when battery runs low, his favorite thing about the Volt was that it didn’t look like the Nissan Leaf. That awkward styling of the Leaf stands out in the US in what many consider to be a bad way while the overall design is not all that revolutionary in the Leaf’s homeland. However, that doesn’t help it sell any better here in the US.

Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has commented in the past that the company is not all that interested in offering an electric vehicle but they would do so just to meet US government expectations. In doing so, Fiat believes that they will lose around $10,000 per unit with the high cost of the battery technology so the 500e will never aspire to be a volume model like the Nissan Leaf – but right now the Leaf is falling far short of the numbers that the Japanese automaker had hoped.

It looks right now as though Fiat has no intention to make a real run at the electric vehicle segment so the Fiat 500e will probably never really compete with the Nissan Leaf. Even with this in mind, there is no question that the styling of the Fiat 500 has been more widely accepted than the exterior design of the Nissan Leaf and with the new electric 500 looking so similar to the gasoline powered models – the 500e could steal some EV buyers from Nissan based on the Italian compact styling.

Which vehicle do you think is better looking between the Fiat 500e and the Nissan Leaf? Tell us in the comment section below!


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Comments

ALTHOUGH THE LEAFS STYLING WILL CERTAINLY NOT WIN ANY AWARDS, IT CAN BE SAID THAT IT IS FORM FOLLOWING FUNCTION AT ITS BEST; THAT CAN HARDLY BE CONSIDERED UGLY SO LETS APPLY A DIFFERENT ADJECTIVE. ITALIANS CAN BE CREDITED WITH CREATING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AUTOMOBILE DESIGNS THAT ARE EVERYTHING BUT PRACTICAL FOR THE MASSES. THAT DOESN'T INCLUDE THE FIAT 500 WHICH, TO ME, HAS THE LOOK OF A CARTOON CAR - LIKE THE SMART FOR2. ANY CAR DESIGN IS ESSENTIALLY AN ART FORM EXPOSED TO SUBJECTIVITY. THUS "BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE" ETC., ETC. OBJECTIVELY, MOST CARS ARE UGLY WITH A RARE FEW THAT WILL PLEASE THE EYE AS THE YEARS PASS (I'M THINKING JAGUAR XJ-E). I'VE HAD AN INTEREST IN EVs FOR SOME TIME AND RECENTLY TEST DROVE A LEAF. THE DRIVE WAS A JOY - IT TOOK THE REST OF THE DAY TO GET RID OF THE SMILE ON MY FACE. THE PERFORMANCE, HANDLING AND "AHEAD OF THE CURVE" TECHNOLOGY OF THE LEAF IS NOTABLE AND A LEAP INTO THE FUTURE. IT'S NOT JUST ANOTHER (INSERT ADJECTIVE) FACE BUT A BEAUTIFUL STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.
I know the author touched on the fact that the US comparison is not fair due to price, etc., but honestly the stat that 40K gasoline Fiat 500's were sold versus a less than 10K figure for the Nissan Leaf should not be mentioned at all even with this note. It's no comparison. How about reference awards or other more "concrete" samples regarding styling like consumer's choice or consumer reports, etc. The 500 will never be in the same class as the Leaf, even if they produced the 500e. I personally think the Leaf has good styling and the Fiat 500 is too feminine. I considered purchasing the latter, but would actually prefer a Smart Fortwo instead. What does that say about the Fiat styling? Let's disregard their ridiculous comments and wait to see how popular the Honda Fit EV becomes. Then we will have a fair comparison to the Leaf.
That's really stretching it but I was there and it didn't necessarily mean the Leaf. It was more of a general indication of how some makers are turning a futuristic cheek while others, like Fiat are capitalizing on their iconic cars. I guess it gets people talking in the end :)
The Leaf hands down!