I'm fascinated by the new Fiat 500 Cinquecento, especially since seeing it in Italy last year, parked on the cobbled streets of Rome next to the classic 1950s 500 model it replaced. Add a baguette sticking out of the sunroof, and you have a classic European picture.
The 500 is a retromobile, and far smaller than Americans are used to. Will it save Chrysler, which desperately needs new product? The Fiat is coming to the U.S. early next year as a 2012 model, priced at $15,500. The fuel economy from the 1.4-liter engine hasn't been announced yet, but it's going to be in the 40s on the highway. An electric version with lithium-ion batteries is in the works, and may debut not long after the gas car. How you'll react to the car, and at that price, is a big unknown among car strategists.
The Fiat 500: The picture makes it look bigger. Trust me, it's small! (Fiat photo)
The Volkswagen New Beetle was a huge hit in the U.S., but so was the original Bug--there was a nostalgia factor. The original Fiat 500 is as scarce on American roads as, well, let's just say they're as rare as Hummers in Berkeley. Fiat's obvious target is the very successful BMW Mini, which costs $5,000 more (and is also based on an icon that never made it in the U.S.) So maybe it doesn't matter if the 500 name doesn't set hearts aflutter.
Ariel Gavilan of Fiat told me he's "optimistic" about how the car, available in three models (Pop, Sport, Lounge) will do in the U.S. In its marketing, Fiat is really hitting the "great for more than 50 years" theme. According to Laura Soave, the brand manager in the U.S., "Like the original Cinquecento a half century ago, the new Fiat 500 changes the rules of personal transportation and delivers a new sense of individual expression and opportunity." That's a lot to ask for from a car, but if by "opportunity" they mean "job," the car will sell like hot pizzas.
A really interesting aspect of the 500 is eco:Drive, which is software that the owner downloads from the web, saves to a flash drive, and imports onto the car via a USB port. It collects data on your driving performance, and rates you against an ideal. In Europe, they recently compiled some data that concludes that British and German drivers are best at saving fuel, and French, Italian and Spanish ones the worst.
The Pop is the affordable model, but the sport--which includes a manual transmission, stiffer springs and a tuned exhaust--is probably the way I'd roll if it doesn't affect the fuel economy too much (or cost too much extra).
Chrysler's poor reputation for quality (it's at the bottom of Consumer Reports' annual survey) could hurt the 500 in the U.S., and people with long memories remember that Fiat stands for "Fix it Again, Tony."
But I'm hoping that Fiat's re-entry into the American market is a smooth one. We need 40-mpg cars on our roads, especially ones as stylish as the 500. Here's a closer look on video:
From Popular Mechanics: 8 Cars We Want to See in a Chrysler-Fiat Future (And 4 We Don't)
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