Fiat 500 at Chicago Gallery 1028Enlarge Photo
Whether it's clothes, food, drink, women or cars, Italians have style. And it's a mouse-like four-wheeler (the 1957 Fiat Nuovo 500), that enlivened postwar Italy's motorways. Many Americans might recall Federico Fellini's carnival of 500s, as seen in movies like La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2. This micro-car symbolized Italian democratization of zany "automobility."
Back to the future
Fiat's design (Roberto Giolito, chief) developed a 2004 concept car. His creation echoed the late-1950s 500's curves setting it apart from Giorgetto Guigiaro's upright 1992 Cinquecento. By 2007, the retro-style production car became a European sensation. Unlike its rear-engine forbearer, the latest 500 has front-wheel-drive. Within its tidy whimsical exterior there's innovation and oodles of style at a modest price.
Soave tells the 500's story to journalistsEnlarge Photo
Laura Soave, Fiat's American CEO, invited journalists to X-ray the 500 at Chicago's Gallery 1028. Representatives from Fiat's engineering and marketing departments answered questions. This year, Laura says, 130 showrooms called "Fiat Studios" will sell 500s in select metropolitan areas. Of these, 1/3 are new stores, another 1/3 are revamped car-dealer outbuildings and another 1/3 are Saturn store makeovers. In my neighborhood, the HUMMER store went Italian. Test track anyone?
How Big is Your Life?
Soave's Fiat story focuses on the 500's gestation and its recreation for the U.S. market. She enthusiastically touts the car's aesthetic charms. According to Soave, there are 500,000 possible build combinations--an unusually high level of customization. One example: the colorful instrument panel. With 30 different seat-cover possibilities, and artistic body-wrap combos, one can craft a unique 500. Fiat's Mexican assembly plant is flexible. It slips in special orders. So you shouldn't wait too long for your custom 500 (sounds like my grandfather's Ford Galaxie).
While the vehicle skews toward male buyers, trims Pop ($15,500), Sport ($17,500) and Lounge ($19,500) make the latest Cinquecento appealing for all genders and generations. Notice the 500s? They're intentional. Freight: $500.
Fabio Di Muro talks engine techEnlarge Photo
MultiAir's electo/hydraulic valve controlEnlarge Photo
Fabio Di Muro, Fiat's engineering expert, explained American-model modifications. With Chrysler's help, engineers improved ride, reduced noise, increased fuel economy and enhanced safety. The car's body, for instance, has three-levels of structural enhancements. Underneath the car, there's additional bracing. Above that, cross members further reinforce. Engineers chose a flat rear floor with extra bracing and a spare mounted below. This ups crash protection.
Airbags: plentiful, seven pop-out protectors including upsized side curtain bags. Fabio claims the 500's inner beauty is its 40-mph frontal impact performance; the passenger pod survives unfazed. Indeed, the demolished car that Fiat displayed had doors that still opened and closed.
Seven airbagsEnlarge Photo
Engine mounts, suspension springs, foam-filled body cavities and an engine cover are further refined to reduce noise and improve ride quality. Unlike European 500s, the optional automatic transmission has six speeds with a conventional torque converter.
Chrysler logo on Fiat engineEnlarge Photo