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 ver-sion 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 nor-mally 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?