FIAT’S ORIGINAL 500 MOBILISED POST-WAR ITALY AND BECAME A NATIONAL TREASURE. CAN THE REINVENTED 500 EMULATE THAT SUCCESS EXACTLY 50 YEARS LATER?
The 4th of July.
Parades, star-spangled banners, neighbourhood barbecues, people dressed in red-white-and-blue, fireworks, patriotic sing-alongs and every other cliché you care to associate with Americans, it all happens on the flag-wavin’-est day of the year: Independence Day. But July 4th is also an ‘independence’ day in Italy, albeit for slightly less momentous reasons. It was on this date in 1957 that Fiat launched the original 500, effectively putting post-war Italy on wheels and giving the nation a new sense of freedom and mobility never imagined before the war. It is fitting, then, that we’re back in Italy on the 50th anniversary of the original car’s launch to celebrate with what I think just might be the entire city of Turin and every original Fiat 500 still in existence.
But more importantly, we’re also embracing the future in the shape of the all-new 500, arguably Fiat’s most important new car in years. While the Bravo and Punto are the volume sellers for Fiat, the 500 is a vital part of the company’s identity and image. It represents all that is good about Fiat in terms of style, packaging and value – it’s Fiat’s flagship, if you like, even if it’s dingy-sized and row-boat priced. Fiat knows this and has decided to launch the new car amid incredible fanfare and ceremony. On the river Po in Turin, Fiat has built a massive platform on which to stage the most elaborate and, frankly, drab extravaganza ever endured by man.
Think of the 28 new car Eurovision except without a point. We’re watching from across the river on a huge, purpose-built grandstand along with 5,000 of Fiat’s (and Italy’s) nearest and dearest. There are arty performers and original Fiat 500s zipping around on propelled floats in the water. There are more antics in the air as helium-filled models and daft human sculptures descend on to the stage. There are fireworks and longwinded MC-ing, all in Italian and broadcasted on speakers so loudly it hurts my ears. 18 hours after leaving Ireland and I still haven’t even seen the car I’ve come to drive. I retire to my hotel only to see the whole thing is being broadcasted live on the telly. There’s no escaping the pomp.
The following morning, all 1,500 invited journalists are packed into the ice-hockey auditorium at the Olympic stadium and subjected to another tortuous performance – this time a bloated, two-hour ‘press conference’ which reveals nothing except that translators really need to be native English speakers: "I am really excited. I want to play with you now." Another buffet breaks out, our 10th so far, and then, finally, 32 hours after leaving for Turin we get word there might be a chance to drive the car. I drop my fork and run. Having been teased with pictures for a year-and-a-half now, it’s a little ‘exciting’ to finally see the 500 up close and personal. And my God, it looks good. It’s been styled to emulate the cuteness and lovability of the original car but reinterpreted for 2007. It’s never easy to reinvent an icon so you can be sure it took many, many hours in the design studio to get this car so right. Every angle, every detail, every surface is exquisite – a more complete and polished piece of design I have not seen in a long time. Fiat couldn’t have got a better designer for the job, mind.
Frank Stephenson was the man behind the reinvented Mini, which makes him ridiculously over-qualified to take Fiat’s precious icon and make it look fresh and cool in 2007. Indeed, the 500’s design is so, well, perfect that it suddenly makes the Mini look like it’s trying too hard to be stylish and funky.
The 500 is effortlessly appealing and incomprehensibly desirable. It’s one of those cars you just fall in love with the moment you see it – so much so that in spite of its adorable looks and diminutive shape even a young heterosexual male can look good and feel comfortable driving around in one. No, I’m not being sexist or homophobic, just honest. Straight men don’t wear make-up or watch films about young women ‘coming of age’ in New York and we certainly don’t drive cutesy little cars unless under extreme duress.
But the 500 is different. It’s like lip balm or moisturising shaving foam or ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ – feminine products that men can enjoy without fear of retribution. It’s genderless and classless, despite its puppy-dog appeal. Fiat sums it up nicely, in fact. It says it’s like an iPod with wheels. The only black mark on the 500’s styling copybook goes to the rear lights, which are just too like the revised Mini’s to be a coincidence, especially at night. It’s the only area in which the car lacks originality – was Stephenson running late one night and tacked these on last minute, I wonder?
Inside, the 500 is executed with the same attention to detail as the exterior, using retrospective design where it makes sense and staying modern where it doesn’t. The dial cluster, for example, apes the original’s but manages to contain the speedometer, the revcounter and a trip computer in the space normally occupied by a single dial. More importantly, it works well, proving easy to read and a delight to behold. The main dashboard facia is painted the same colour as the exterior and feels very expensive and satisfying to touch while the leather on the steering wheel feels equally as tactile and upmarket in the hands.
The cool retro gear knob looks like it should be heavy and cold (like the original bakelite shifter) but it proves to be disappointingly light and plasticky to the touch. Indeed, despite Fiat’s claims it has topped the Japanese for quality there are still quite a few so-so plastics below the eyeline and it still smells of that unmistakable Fiat glue, indicating it might not be up to Japanese Mini levels just yet. To be fair, though, compared to anything else in the segment it really does have a high-quality, upscale feel, which is a pleasant surprise given how poorly finished Fiat interiors generally tend to be. Interior room, as you can imagine, isn’t very expansive and there are no clever, sliding, rear seats (the legroom they would generate wouldn’t be worth the effort) to boost rear space but it’s better than a Mini in there and just fine for kids or adults for short stints. Front seat passengers have a proper amount of space and while the ‘sport’ seats themselves are comfortable they offer almost no lateral support, and without a reach-adjustable steering it’s rather difficult to get comfortable if you’re tall. As a package, then, the 500 is really only average and is actually a little disappointing in places, but in terms of interior style and finish it’s (mostly) a peach. Good job they’ve made the Fiat badge as big as they have – otherwise you might forget what you were driving.
Our test car was powered by Fiat’s wonderfully smooth 75hp, 145Nm 1,238cc turbo diesel engine that is mated to a light if slightly vague five-speed gearbox. With 0-100km/h taking an unremarkable 12.5 seconds and a top speed of 165km/h it certainly wasn’t any kind of fireball on the mountain roads above Turin, although it did cruise reasonably well and, as I mentioned, it barely makes a peep unless you rev the nuts off it. A revised version of the 69hp, 102Nm 1.2-litre FIRE petrol engine is also available and boasts almost identical acceleration and emission figures even if it’s a wee bit thirstier. The six-speed, 100hp, 131Nm 1.4-litre model was the car we all wanted to drive, though, but because the formalities took so bloody long all we got was two hours in the one car (half of which was spent in heavy traffic) so we never got the opportunity to experience the 500 at its zippiest, sadly. Speaking of zip, an Abarth version is also in the works, which should produce about 125hp, maybe more, although that’s not expected for at least another year or so and I’m already having sleepless nights worrying about the launch All share the same MacPherson front and torsion beam rear suspension but the sporty 1.4 gets a quicker steering, bigger brakes (with red brake callipers plus discs in the back) and ESP so our 1.3 MJet ‘Lounge’ model (an Italian designation) probably feels more like the model most people in Ireland will end up buying.
The good news is that ride quality is excellent, even on our optional 16-inch alloy wheels, and grip levels are very high, making it a very comfortable and ‘planted’ car to drive. What it isn’t, though, is involving. Turn in is sharp, the steering is fairly precise and there’s a bit of feedback, too, but the weighting is very artificial, making it feel somewhat detached and disinterested. There’s also a lot of body roll and the seats do a hopeless job of holding you in place which means, by and large, it’s not the kind of car you’d take out for a thrash just for the sake of it. There’s potential there, no question, and I’m sure the Ford Ka, which shares the 500’s underpinnings and which will be built at the same factory in Poland, will exploit it fully.
But the Fiat places more emphasis on style and comfort and isn’t the chuckable little rogue its styling suggests. In terms of equipment, little is known about the Irish models yet but we expect the entry-level model to have the usual remote locking, electric windows and mirrors, CD/MP3 player and a trip computer. Silly things like split rear seat and a passenger grab handle will be optional, though. The popular mid-range model which will add air conditioning, Bluetooth, alloy wheels, a leather steering wheel, tinted rear windows, a height-adjustable seat and heated mirrors. Top versions add climate control, a glass roof, lots of chrome and the split rear seat and grab handle – gasp!
All three trim levels are available with all three engines, which helps Fiat to reach its goal of offering 500,000 different configurations for the car, though most of these are down to wheel, accessory and sticker packs –very Mini-esque. It’s also worth mentioning that all 500s will have an incredible seven airbags as standard, including a driver knee airbag, which Fiat says will help make it the first 5-star NCAP city car ever, and possibly the first 6-star city car when the extra star is introduced down the line. Fiat has said it will only build 120,000 new Cinquecentos a year and will leave the volume sales up to its sister car, the Ford Ka. That’s not to say the 500 will be an exclusive or expensive car (it will be more expensive than the Panda, but cheaper than the Grande Punto, suggesting an entry-level price of around €14,000) just that Fiat has limited volumes to ensure the demand-versus-supply ratio works in its favour, in much the same way as it does for the Mini. I have no doubt that the 500 will be an enormous success given how accessibly cool it is and I’m sure that there will be another party in 50 years’ time to celebrate the little car that made Fiat cool again. The good news for me is that I’ll be 83 by the time that rolls around and by then I plan to be senile enough that watching riverbased theatre and listening to speeches in Italian might actually be entertaining.
Fiat 500 1.2
Engine 1.2 litre 4-cylinder, 69hp,
102Nm torque Transmission 5-speed manual
Acceleration 0-100km/h 12.9 seconds
Top speed 160km/h
Economy 5.1 litres/100km
CO2 Emissions 119 g/km
Weight 865 kg
Boot Capacity 185 litres
Base Price €14,000 (est)
Fiat 500 1.3
Engine 1.2 litre 4-cylinder turbo diesel, 75hp,
145Nm torque Transmission 5-speed manual
Acceleration 0-100km/h 12.5 seconds
Top speed 165km/h
Economy 4.2 litres/100km
CO2 Emissions 111g /km
Weight 980 kg
Boot Capacity 185 litres
Base Price €17,000 (est)
Fiat 500 1.4
Engine 1.4 litre 4-cylinder, 100hp,
131Nm torque Transmission 6-speed manual
Acceleration 0-100km/h 10.5 seconds
Top speed 182 km/h
Economy 6.3 litres/100km
CO2 Emissions 149 g/km
Weight 930 kg
Boot Capacity 185 litres
Base Price €15,500 (est)