“I’ve just been out touching the cars,” explains Rob Tabet, sales manager of both the new Suburban Fiat dealership and the old Suburban Chrysler Jeep across the street. It’s a blustery February day, and he’s bundled up, carrying a snow-flecked clipboard. “There are some days when you just don’t want to do it.”
“Touching the cars” is Suburban’s internal jargon for doing inventory–going down the lot and writing down stock number, year, color, and VIN. It reminds you of the scene in Fargo when Frances McDormand’s sheriff asks William H. Macy’s car dealer plaintively: “But how do yah really know if a car’s missing?”
Tabet knows the scene well (he’s a film buff). “Well, that’s how we know,” he laughs.
Then he offers an espresso.
Not the usual touch in a car showroom, but this is a Fiat dealership, which considers itself a place apart. “Fiat actually doesn’t use the word ‘dealership,'” he says. “They’re called ‘studios.’ Our salespeople are called ‘specialists.'”
This is one of only three Fiat studios in Michigan. The rounded cars come in about twenty (Italian) colors and look like M&Ms on wheels. They’re so small that Tabet says fifty of them fit on the tiny lot, a onetime gas station next to the Stadium post office. “MINI is our arch-nemesis,” he says, watching one drive by. “I don’t know what’s taking them so long, but I’m not complaining.” He’s referring to the MINI dealership on Jackson that’s been under construction for a year. “We went up in two months.”
Suburban’s decision to locate its Fiat franchise in Ann Arbor happened suddenly, and so did its acquisition last summer of the Chrysler Jeep dealership across the street.
Though many still remember it as the longtime Naylor dealership, for the previous four years, it had actually been owned by Benn Gilmore. “Dr. Gilmore,” as Tabet respectfully refers to him, “was a medical doctor who sold his clinics and wanted to try something new. But [the car business] just wasn’t for him.” Suburban eagerly bought it from him, and everyone’s happy. “Dr. Gilmore bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee from himself on his last day and brings it in every three months for an oil change, and we chitchat a little bit.”
While the Fiat studio is very small, sleek, and European, Tabet is also proud of the traditional retro glamour of Chrysler Jeep, one of the last car dealerships inside the city limits. “It has tons of character. I understand it’s one of only two remaining ‘pentastars,'” he says–seen from above, the glass-walled showroom is shaped like the five-sided Chrysler logo.
Suburban, based in Michigan, is one of the country’s largest car groups (Tabet thinks it ranks about thirteenth). It also owns the Chevrolet and Cadillac dealerships on Jackson at Wagner.
Suburban Fiat, 2095 W. Stadium, 794-5875. Mon. & Thurs. 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Tues., Wed., & Fri. 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sun. fiatusaofannarbor.com