A Fiat 500 is shown at the Chrysler Group LLC headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. - AP

Lithia vying for Fiat dealership in Medford

Lithia Motors is among the Chrysler auto dealers preparing to make a pitch to sell Chrysler Group's new Fiat 500 subcompact.

Sid DeBoer, Lithia Motors' chief executive officer, was among several hundred Chrysler dealers invited to Detroit to see the company's flashy new compact aimed to compete with BMW AG's Mini Cooper.

Chrysler says it hopes to sell 50,000 of the Fiat 500s in the United States during 2011.

About 400 dealers from the largest small-car markets throughout the country were invited to a preview meeting in Detroit.

"They are only going to put it in a couple hundred stores," said DeBoer, reached en route to the Detroit airport. "I think it would be a good opportunity and we're looking at several of our markets."

Chrysler products have been the backbone of Lithia's sales, although the nation's ninth-largest auto retailer with 85 stores in 12 states has been working to balance its brand sales for several years.

Chrysler expects initially to name 165 dealers in 119 U.S. markets to sell the Fiat 500. The network could expand to about 200 locations as more products become available. Dealers have until Sept. 22 to submit proposals to become a Fiat franchisee and Chrysler will announce its list in mid-October.

DeBoer would like to sell the Fiats in Medford, even though the market wasn't on Chrysler's preliminary list.

"We may try to talk them into selling in Medford, because it's the showcase place for our Chrysler brand," DeBoer said. "It's a beautiful store and we do so well selling Chrysler and Dodge here. They have the program in place, though, and it's a smaller market than they want."

DeBoer will huddle with his executives when he returns to the Rogue Valley.

"We haven't determined where we will apply for yet," he said. "We'll look at where else we might have an opportunity."

The U.S. version of the Fiat 500 will be unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show in November. The U.S. model will be assembled in a Chrysler plant in Mexico.

Fiat and Chrysler executives are trying to persuade dealers to invest in new showrooms to sell the models. Some are skeptical about spending as much as $1 million to build a separate facility for Fiat while also devoting staff and time to sell the vehicles.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail

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