Mini had better watch out, because its first serious rival in the cute-and-cuddly compact sweepstakes is here. No, it's not a new baby Benz or a small Audi. The prime challenger has instead been launched by Fiat, which hopes to crown its successful comeback with la nuova Cinquecento, the new 500.
That's right: on July 5, exactly fifty years after the original 500 made its debut, 5000 of the new cars were dispatched to European dealerships. Available in more than 500,000 different color, trim, and spec combinations, the Italian microcompact can be leased for as little as €5 (less than $7) per day. Better still, it stands a good chance of coming to North America in 2009. According to the capo di capi of the Fiat Group, the charismatic, chain-smoking Sergio Marchionne, the 135-hp Abarth version may be sold in small numbers through the Maserati dealer network. That hotshoe version should give the 118-hp Mini Cooper a good run for the money.
Beneath the new 500 lurks the running gear of the €9000 (a bit more than $12,000) Fiat Panda. We're talking base front-wheel-drive technology here, but the wrapping is super cool. You see, like the Mini, la nuova Cinquecento mimics an icon, a true auto-industry milestone. Its shape was obviously inspired by Dante Giacosa's 1957 Fiat 500, which did for Italy what Ferdinand Porsche's Volkswagen Beetle did for Germany. The original 500 was a minimalistic and inexpensive rear-engine four-seater that was aimed at Europe's working class. Together with the Giardiniera wagon, the Jolly sunseeker, and the Abarth street racer, the first-generation Cinquecento--built until 1975--sold a whopping 3.9 million units. Other models followed, but none of them--the no-frills Fiat 126, the nondescript Cinquecento series two, the poor man's Seicento--came close to obtaining a similar cult status. They were plain and basic transportation devices, reasonably functional but almost totally charmless, not only cheap to buy but also cheap in content and appearance.
The Cinquecento's twenty-nine-year slumber ended in 2004 when Fiat presented the Trepino concept at the Geneva show. Initially, the bean counters claimed it wasn't feasible for financial reasons, but then the bigwigs teamed up with Ford, and only months later the combined Fiat 500/ Ford Ka project got the official go-ahead. Built in Tychy, Poland, each of the two minicompacts will be produced at a rate of 120,000 units per year.
Fiat already has announced its pricing, which is quite ambitious for a bargain-basement brand. The 500 Pop sells at €10,500 (about $14,500), the Lounge version costs €12,500 (about $17,000), and the top-notch Sport lists at €14,500 ($20,000). The turbocharged Abarth is expected to retail at €16,500 ($22,500)--that's about ten percent less than the less powerful and less well-equipped Mini Cooper costs in Europe. These prices include seven air bags, but stability control, automatic climate control, and aluminum wheels are optional.
Like the original 500, the twenty-first-century model is a very emotional piece of machinery, sporting flirty headlamps, a sexy wasp-tailed greenhouse, a lively chassis with optional sixteen-inch wheels, and juicy proportions with minimal overhangs and a convincing mix of bold muscle and discreet elegance. The Cinquecento is about the equal of the Mini when it comes to the appeal of its exterior styling. But the dead heat ends as soon as you open the door and climb behind the steering wheel, which is wrapped in smooth, color-coded leather. Somewhat unexpectedly, it's the Fiat that gets the cockpit styling 100 percent right, winning hands down in the color and trim department. It is not only better looking and better made, it's also better equipped. The driver's environment is more tasteful and less eccentric, more sophisticated and less retro, more architectural and less ornamental. Sure, the seats are mounted a little too high, the steering column doesn't adjust in reach, and the layout of the single round instrument could be a lot more intuitive. Designed in Turin, the overall composition, however, is masterful. Is it really mere coincidence that the gestation of the new Cinquecento was overseen by Frank Stephenson, who fathered the first-edition new Mini?
The 500 variant that currently comes closest to next year's Abarth is the 100-hp, 1.4-liter Sport. It boasts a button that changes the setting of the power steering from "road" to "track" while at the same time speeding up the dialogue between the throttle and the engine. With a chassis that promises less body roll than the Mini, four disc brakes, and chunky 195/45 tires, all the Sport needs for on-paper perfection is the six-speed paddleshift transmission that is earmarked for 2008.
Does it handle like a Mini? Not quite. But it rides a couple clouds better. It corners with the flatness of a hovercraft. It steers with feedback and precision. It has potent brakes with lots of stamina. It doesn't indulge in any excessive torque steer. And its clutch and gearbox share a rare fluidity of motion, rather than operating at odds with each other. After twenty laps on the road course of Fiat's Balocco test track, it's apparent that the new 500 can really fly. La nuova Cinquecento is not quite a Ferrari for peasants, but it does take some time in the pit bar with a couple cups of espresso for your smile to recede.
Over time, there will be more to come from camp Cinquecento, and it's again the Mini that acts as the role model. In addition to the two-door hatchback, Fiat is working on four exciting body styles: a four-seat softtop, a brawny coupe, a small SUV that will tap the genes of the Panda 4x4, and a wagon. On the go-faster front, there is reportedly an even more aggressive 170-hp Assetto Corsa version in the pipeline.
At the same time, the Italians are preparing a hybrid version with a stop/start feature and brake-energy regeneration. Only marginally less green are the eco versions that will be powered by a new, superfrugal 0.9-liter twin-cylinder unit (Fiat calls it the Multiair) that delivers 65 hp in normally aspirated form and 105 hp in turbo-charged guise. But the big news for North America is, of course, the aforementioned 500 Abarth, which gets all the sporty add-ons, such as a two-tone paint job, a bigger air intake, flared fenders over wider wheels, a pair of long-range Cibi driving lights, and a specially designed interior. Wouldn't this be the perfect present for Father's Day 2009?