Miscellaneous Ramblings

Fiat 500: Enough Style to Be an iCar?

Charles Moore - 2011.05.23 - Tip Jar

I consider my interest in automobiles to be in continuum with my interest in computers and tech. Not only because most cars these days support some sort of integration with iPods - and on certain high-end iron iPads as well - but also because they themselves are controlled by computers, without which modern, fuel-mileage and emissions optimized engines wouldn't even run, to say nothing of hybrids and electric vehicles which are even more dependent on computers.

Cars and computers also share the status of being lifestyle technologies, their use intricately woven into the fabric of our day to day existence, and without which a great many of us would find difficulty getting along.

Moore's 1962 Riley 1.5

I'm also a longtime fan of very small, efficient cars, from way back before the days when fuel economy was a major concern, at least in North America. I've actually only owned a couple of really small cars myself over the past 45 years or so (I like big cars too) - notably a 1962 Volkswagen Beetle and a 1962 Riley 1.5, the latter which was essentially a British factory hot rod composed of a substantially duded up Morris Minor chassis, body, and interior with an MGA engine shoehorned in. That Riley was ample proof that small cars don't have to be boring or slow.

I also drove Minis a lot back in the day (the original ten-foot-long British motors Minis - not today's not-so-mini BMW Mini) belonging to family and friends, as well as another friend's Renault 4.

These days, subcompact cars make more sense than ever. I'm not wild about the aesthetics or the prices of most thematic replica cars like the Mini and the new (also coming soon: newer) VW beetle, but the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento, pronounced "chin-kwe-CHEN-toh") is another matter, being a much more faithful tribute to its 54-year-old inspiration (in production between between 1957 and 1975) than the British-Teutonic replica or caricatures.

The Cinquecento redivivus captures the spirit and brio of its mid-20th-century namesake, even though it's a completely modern - and in some respects bleeding edge (more on this in a moment) - design with a front rather than rear engine. And now, after an absence of more than two decades, Fiats have finally returned to North America, thanks to the Italian firm taking control of Chrysler. Fiat's (and Chrysler's) Italian-Canadian CEO Sergio Marchionne commented to the trade weekly Automotive News: "I am convinced that the 500 with a full range [of body styles] will be a smash [in the US] if we do it right."

They have. The first Cinquecentos arrived in my neck of the woods just this week, and they are extremely cool little cars.

Part of doing it right is pricing it right, and the Fiat 500, which comes in three trim levels (Pop, Sport, and Lounge), starts in the US at $15,500 and in Canada at Can$15,995, which is substantially less than the entry-level price points for the BMW Mini or the just-redesigned VW New Beetle.

The North American version of the Fiat 500 is built in Mexico, and compared with the European edition it has an increased fuel tank capacity of 10.5 US gallons, a beefed up heating and cooling system, newly designed seats, new steering wheel controls and a recalibrated steering effort, and an available new 6-speed automatic gearbox, as well as a Microsoft-developed Blue&Me handsfree communication system and a USB port for device connectivity. All North American Cinquecentos come with a 1.4 liter four-cylinder "MultiAir" gasoline engine developing 101 HP (75 kW) at 6500 rpm and 133 Nm of torque at 4000 rpm - roughly three times the displacement and eight times more horsepower than owners got with the 1950s Cinquecento's 479cc two-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-mounted mill that generated a whopping 13HP.

red Fiat 500You can still get a two-cylinder 2012 Cinquecento in Europe, but it's now one of the most technologically-advanced automobile engines in the world, a water-cooled 875cc unit rated at 85 HP and a truly impressive 145Nm of torque (more than the much larger four-cylinder North American version's engine develops, and at a usefully low 1900 rpm, too). This two-cylinder "Twin Air" powerplant also emits only 92g/km of CO2, making it the world's least greenhouse gas polluting non-hybrid gasoline engined four-seat vehicle, as well as delivering excellent fuel-mileage along with very respectable, albeit not pavement-ripping, 0-60 mph acceleration under 11 seconds and a top speed of 108 mph. The Twin Air engine's impressive performance is largely attributable to Fiat's electro-hydraulic variable valve actuation technology, which opens the inlet valves by the optimum amount in any circumstance. You can find a cool four-minute YouTube video that explains it online.

This is advanced design of the sort one expects from the company that makes Ferrari supercars and Maserati and Alfa Romeo high-end sports cars at the other end of the price spectrum.

interior of Fiat 500Something else one expects in Italian cars is great, stylish interiors. Automotive interiors are a category where countries of origin tend to have distinct character signatures. No one does traditional luxurious elegance as well as the British. The Germans lean toward superbly executed but often somewhat austere design, while the French can often seem almost perversely strange and quirky with car interiors, although that isn't always a bad thing. French cars are among the most comfortable in the world and often interestingly innovative as well.

However, the Italians have the edge on style and execution. It's not for nothing that automotive journalists have been waxing rhapsodic over what Fiat has done with Chrysler Corporation interiors since taking control of the company two years ago. And the Fiat 500 doesn't disappoint in this department either.

Additionally, a sporty Cabrio version of the 500c is offered, inspired by the original 1957 fabric roof Fiat 500, but with thoroughly modern mechanicals and engineering under the classic-appearing skin.

Old and new Fiat 500Fiat notes that the new Cinquecento was developed by the Centro Stile Fiat design center using an IT industry-esque "open-source approach," continually evolving on the basis of input from users and enthusiasts. While the 2012 500 is a very small car by current standards, being some 15 cm shorter than a contemporary Mini and 40 cm shorter a Ford Fiesta, it's actually somewhat huge compared with the original 1957 to 1975 Cinquecento, as these pictures illustrate.Anyway, in my estimation the Fiat 500 is a car that technically oriented folks can appreciate, which gets me to thinking. From time to time over the past decade or so the rumor mills have speculated about the potential for possibly integrating the iPod, iPhone, and other Apple products into an Apple branded automobile - the proverbial "iCar." There have been reports of Steve Jobs having discussion with automobile company executives, and even rumors about a secret Apple iCar skunk works department at Cupertino, but nothing has ever come of any of it, at least that we know of.

Fiat 500 in the snowHowever, it occurs that the Fiat 500 would seem to be an ideal base for an iCar treatment. it has an understated but quietly cool and stylish elegance about it that would harmonize well's with Apple products. As I noted above, the differences among the Fiat 500 models offered for sale in North America are essentially different trim packages, so why not a fourth one; a Fiat 500 iCar joining the Fiat 500 Pop, Sport, and Lounge models? Just saying.

A Cinquecento-based, Apple cobranded iCar would have the contemporaneously appropriate characteristics of small size and light environmental footprint, which, combined with the Apple "i-factor" could conceivably make it the iPhone/iPod/iPad of the automotive world.

Sergio Marchionne evidently has a sense of stylish unconventionality that would be compatible with Apple culture, a strong interest in the music business sitting on the him boards of Vivendi and Sony Music with one journalist reporting his office at Chrysler is "cluttered" with hundreds of CDs stacked on the floor. He even has a partiality for Steve Jobs-style black pullovers. (The Register recently reviewed a European spec TwinAir Fiat 500.)

On the other hand, Marchionne is said to carry a backpack containing six Blackberry smartphones (which he reportedly calls "divine instruments") - one for each corporation he manages. Something would have to be done about that!

A flight of fantasy, but it's fun. Ciao!

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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