Last month, the new Panda was named Car of the Year by a group of European motoring journalists, marking the eighth time that Fiat has won the accolade with one of its new models since the awards were launched in 1964.
It is a powerful base from which to launch the car to UK fleets from later this month and already Fiat's team is excited about what the future holds.
Andy Rowe, Fiat's commercial director, said: 'Everyone is really excited about the car. It is the first A-segment car to win the award, which is saying a lot when you consider rivals included the Mazda3, BMW 5-series and new Volkswagen Golf.'
The Panda is in the front line of the firm's battle to increase sales next year following a difficult 12 months. There has been widespread speculation about the future ownership of Fiat – which Rowe says is no longer an issue, insisting that Fiat will remain independent.
This bumpy ride for 2003 saw sales fall from 82,000 in 2002 to an estimated 76,000 last year. There were two main factors in this reduction – one was restricted supply when one of the firm's key engine plants in Italy was hit by a mudslide, which affected the first part of the year, and a significant reduction has come from a re-evaluation of its daily rental volume.
Fiat finished the year strongly as supply issues were resolved and it launched the new Punto in August. This year, sales should reach 80,100 units, of which about a third will be fleet sales.
Rowe added: 'This year we will start with the new Panda, swiftly followed by Idea which will be launched in March. There will also be a facelift for the Stilo and a range of new engines.
'It is an exciting product-led year which will bring a complete refreshment of the line-up and introduce new models. This will build our presence as more fleets get to know our products and realise how good they are.
'This is backed up by our van range, where we increased sales by more than 25% last year and recorded a record volume for Fiat CVs in the UK.
'We probably don't feature highly enough in user-choosers' vision curve and we are looking to build awareness in that market because we have very good feedback from people who have tried our products and find they are a good value-for-money proposition.'
Backing this drive for a greater share of the fleet market, the firm is increasing the number of fleet centres of expertise from 32 to 50, focused around major population areas.
Rowe added: 'We have also rapidly expanded our representation in 2003, appointing nearly 30 new dealers. This activity will continue in 2004 with interest in the franchise remaining high throughout the industry.
'The main message is that we are coming back stronger than ever before – not that we have ever been away.
'Our new products have already been seen and one has been voted the best in Europe. We are very confident about 2004 and believe we will really make an impact. We can say to potential customers that a large part of the fleet community already uses us, so isn't it time that you started talking to us as well?'