Fiat 500L in-car espresso machine: tempest in a demitasse?

Fiat 500L draws lots of attention for its espresso machine. Critics grumble about another distraction, but there's more to the Fiat 500L story.

Fabio Ferrari/Lapresse/AP/File
Fiat Industrial Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois speaks at the launch of the new Fiat 500L in Turin, Italy, earlier this month. The car is generating plenty of buzz because of a new option advertised for Italians: an in-car espresso machine. No word yet whether the feature will be available on 500Ls destined for North America.

Pundits are percolating over a new feature on the forthcoming Fiat 500L. Here are the details, along with a bit of backstory: 

1. Those Jennifer Lopez ads for the Fiat 500 did massively well at raising the brand's profile in the U.S.

2. To capitalize on its success, Fiat has just unveiled a new marketing campaign, hyping the company's next lineup of "immigrant" vehicles. (Seriously, that's the campaign's theme: "immigrants". Believe it or not, it's kind of clever.)

3. One model not seen in the ads but which is coming to the U.S. very soon is the Fiat 500L -- a wagon unveiled at the Geneva motor show that could expand Fiat's customer base.

4. In Italy, the 500L is already being advertised, and Fiat is giving particular attention to one of its very unique features: an in-car espresso maker. 

Now, on the one hand, we could look at this as a true -- even stereotypical -- Italian innovation. After all, if we've learned anything from years of watching Fellini films and George Clooney's foreign commercials, it's that Italians love coffee.

And in point of fact, the Italians to whom this innovation is being marketed have been pretty quiet about it. According to CNN, however, some of their American counterparts are steamed.

That's probably to be expected, given the nation's (thoroughly warranted) focus on the problem of distracted driving. Between text messages, emails, mobile wifi, and other technological innovations, many Americans have been pushing automakers to pull back on in-car distractions.

Dolce far niente

Unfortunately for Fiat, the novelty of the 500L's espresso-maker has overshadowed some of its technical details -- namely, the fact that the machine only works when the vehicle is stopped. Naturally, that makes it far less of a distraction for drivers.

For Americans, though, all this may end up being a tempest in a demi-tasse: Fiat says that it's uncertain whether the espresso maker will be offered on the 500L for the U.S. market.

That makes sense, since (a) we're not entirely sure this would be a huge selling point for American shoppers, and (b) the espresso maker was developed by the popular Italian coffee company, Lavazza, and uses Lavazza's proprietary "A Modo Mio" pods, which, unlike Keurig's K-cups, aren't commonly found in the U.S.

Our take? 

The idea of an in-car coffee-maker seems like a strange brew, indeed.

We're not experts at marketing to the Italian public, but our experience of the country has been that eating and drinking in cars is still a rarity on the Continent. Perhaps this could change public perception, but we're doubtful.

And on this side of the pond, where eating and drinking on the go is de rigeur, an in-car coffee machine might cause a stir, but as an eccentric touch, not a major selling point. Frankly, this whole debacle reminds us of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is surrounded by coffee makers, fax machines, and Fry Daddies: one step too far.

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