2008 Fiat 500

Retro is still cool, according to Fiat, which has already tapped into its past for a new badge and created a fashionable range of merchandise featuring its logo style from the 1920s.

The latest Fiat 500—cinquecento in Italian—is also about reestablishing Fiat’s Italian pride. Five years ago, Fiat was in dire straits and seemed certain to fall into the arms of General Motors under an agreement made in 2000. Sergio Marchionne, a Canadian-Italian businessman, was appointed CEO of Fiat in 2004 and given the freedom to do whatever it took to turn the company around. His first action was to negotiate a divorce settlement with GM, which ended up costing the General $2 billion. A jubilant and now cash-rich Fiat put ads in newspapers throughout Italy proclaiming, “Fiat is Italian again.”

Small cars are Fiat’s specialty, and a range of new ones—starting with its cheapest model, the Panda, and following with the Grande Punto—has improved Fiat’s sales. Following the success of the modern-day Volkswagen New Beetle and Mini Cooper, Fiat presented the Trepiuno concept at the 2004 Geneva auto show.

The concept borrowed the design of the 1950 Nuova Fiat 500 but was built on a modern Panda platform. Three years later, and 50 years to the day after the first appearance of the iconic original, a party that involved the whole city of Turin welcomed the debut of the ’08 500.

Film buffs will remember the old 500 from La Dolce Vita and some of Fellini’s other films. It was tiny (116 inches long), had suicide doors, two seats with room for luggage where the back seats would be, and a spartan specification—a rear-mounted 479cc engine and a four-speed manual transmission without the benefit of synchromesh. In postwar Italy, owning one was a rite of passage for Italian motorists.

The new car has no relationship to the old, other than the surprisingly faithful adaptation of the body shape. The ’08 is significantly larger—it’s 139.8 inches long—accommodates four people, and offers a range of gas and diesel four-cylinder engines that drive the front wheels. The cabin has the spirit of the original, with its simple cream-colored plastic that looks like Bakelite, but it also has modern conveniences: seven airbags, climate control, and a connector for your iPod.

Luca De Meo, the youthful Fiat brand boss, admits the success of BMW’s revisionist Mini did influence some of the reborn 500’s traits. Like the Mini, the 500 is ripe for customizing. There are 11 exterior colors, seven trim levels, 19 decal packs, and more than 100 accessories available at launch. And like the Mini, there will be a family of 500s, including a convertible and a wagon.

There is a big difference between the price of the Fiat and a Mini Cooper. Fiat 500 prices in Europe start at about $16,000. If that seems high, blame the weak dollar; this price point is about $6000 less than what the cheapest Mini costs in Europe. And although its German owners are content for the Mini to be a stand-alone brand, the 500 is actually Fiat’s halo car, albeit its smallest model, but one that sells for a premium and will likely enhance Fiat’s reputation. You could call it bottom-up marketing.

Riding atop the Panda’s front-drive platform, the 500 handles well. With a lower center of gravity than the Panda and a wider stance, the 1.4-liter 500 feels better than the equivalent Panda. It is an entertaining drive, with enough power to spin its front wheels, a slick six-speed gearbox that does a good job of compensating for the engine’s lack of torque, and a sport button that increases the effort of the electric power steering while increasing throttle sensitivity.

The seating position is a bit too high and the interior trim doesn’t feel quite as good as it looks, but the designers deserve credit for the new-old style of the single instrument, which houses a speedometer and tachometer in concentric circles and has an electronic display at the center.

It is a bit ironic that this very Italian car is built in Poland. But it’s built alongside its platform mate, the Panda. Could this be the car that brings Fiat back to America? De Meo isn’t ruling out that possibility. An upcoming turbocharged version with 135 horsepower will be sold under the Abarth name (known for high-performance Fiats), and that most powerful of 500s is being considered for the U.S. as the next stage after the reintroduction of Alfa Romeo to the U.S., which is expected in the next two years.

On July 4, 1957, in Turin, Fiat presented the Nuova Fiat 500, a real icon of our times, with which Fiat concluded a revival that had begun straight after the Second World War. On July 4, 2007, exactly 50 years later, again in Turin, Fiat will present the new Fiat 500 which will be marketed immediately after the launch. And the new car will conclude an equally important cycle of revival for Fiat Automobiles SpA.

Developed by the Fiat Style Centre and manufactured in the plant in Tychy (Poland), the new 500 is a 3-door model with very compact measurements: it is 355 cm long, 165 cm wide, 149 cm tall and has a wheelbase of 230 cm. The car is extremely entertaining to drive, due to its three engines: a 75 bhp 1.3 16v Multijet turbodiesel unit and two petrol engines, the 69 bhp 1.2 8v and the 100 bhp 1.4 16v, all of which are available with five or six speed mechanical gearboxes.

The model confirms Fiat Automobiles SpA’s undisputed leadership in this category – a result of its extraordinary heritage of technical, design and human experience accumulated in over a century – and it takes a quality leap forward in terms of comfort and safety, technology and equipment for this segment.

The new 500 is the most up-to-date solution for the motorist who ‘enjoys’ his car in complete freedom, appreciates it for day-to-day use, but also wishes to drive a car that is entertaining and practical, environmentally-friendly and accessible, but also appealing and full of fun.

Kicking the tires:

First walk around the car is impressive, especially for the high-end models (€14,500). The 500’s design is harmonious in every detail. This particular dealer is smart enough to have a vintage 500 right next to the new one; the size difference is astounding. We mistook the old 500 for a roller skate at first glance.

Warming the seats:
We’re not ashamed to say that the interior is the best part of the nuova 500. The fit and finish is spectacular. The haptics should make the guys over at Lexus think twice about their quality. We know, we know, it sounds crazy, but it’s really that good. One weird aspect is the lack of a traditional glove box. In its place is a Lotus Elise-like shelf.

If you have your heart set on a place to store contraband, you can order a cool little storage box that goes under the passenger side seat bottom. Shockingly, if you put two six footers in the car, there’s still plenty of legroom in the back. Rear headroom, on the other hand, is a struggle. Hopefully your friends are short or don’t mind having their heads bash against the roof.

On the road:
Our tester was equipped with the top shelf petrol engine, a 1.4L 16-valve four pot good for a hundred horsepower and mated to a manual six speed. Even though the engine in the tester has the highest output currently available, (Abarth, you can toss us a tester any time) it’s sort of a buzzy, lazy lump. Take off is peppy, but it’s a flat experience after first gear.

Engine braking is not a possibility as the RPMs just jump up to redline without actually providing any resistance. The car tosses into the corner happily, but the crappy tires on the test car protested loudly. We’d be interested to know how cars equipped with better shoes perform. Amusing for this segment is the “Sport” button. As far as we could tell, the purpose of the button was to light up the “Sport” indicator light, that’s it.

Bottom Line:
The 500 is very pretty, very comfortable, a sipper of fuel, and great as a daily driver in the cramped streets of Europe. It will probably do very well considering the low price, handsome styling and three-page long options list. We’re definitely smitten with the great interior and we like the packaging better than the Mini. If Fiat ever plans on bringing it over to the US, they’ll need to rework that motor to have a chance of competing with the unter-Bimmer, but we see great possibilities in this little car.

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 3-door hatchback


ENGINES: SOHC 8-valve 1.2-liter inline-4, 59 hp, 75 lb-ft; turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 1.3-liter diesel inline-4, 68 hp, 107 lb-ft; DOHC 16-valve 1.4-liter inline-4, 94 hp, 94 lb-ft

TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 90.6 in Length: 139.8 in Width: 65.0 in Height: 58.7 in
Curb weight: 2150 lb

Zero to 62 mph: 9.5 sec
Top speed (drag limited): 115 mph

European combined cycle: 36 mpg

Scribbled on July 10th 2008 in Fiat, Fiat 500
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