The Fiat 500 Family Tree

Fiat 500 Exhibit at Lane Motor MuseumIn the Beginning…

The Fiat Topolino (1936-55) became the Fiat 600 (1955-69)
The Fiat 600 became the Fiat Nuova 500 (1957-75)
The Fiat 500 became the Fiat 126 (1972-93)
The Fiat 126 became the Fiat Cinquecento (1991-98)
The Fiat Cinquecento became both the Fiat Seicento (1998-2010)
and the Fiat New 500 (2007+)

Why a Fiat 500 exhibit, here and now? Well, we have a number of interesting Fiat 500s and variants, with several examples of the 500 since the mid-1930s. Why now? As you may know, the American auto industry fell on hard times a few years ago, and Chrysler was in real danger of going out of existence. Fiat saw an opportunity to reenter the North American market by partnering with Chrysler – a potential win-win for both. Chrysler would get an infusion of much-needed cash plus some fresh small cars, and Fiat would gain a new foothold here with an established dealer network. Fiat had abandoned the US market in the early 1980s, but has remained a huge, successful, diverse manufacturer elsewhere. Fiat’s immediate plans are to bring the New 500 here in the spring of 2011, and other models will surely follow.

Is the 500 the “right” car to bring here now? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it is Fiat’s current offering in the very competitive “city car” segment. Stylistically, it does a great job of evoking the cuteness of the classic 500, although mechanically it is far more modern in both design and materials. Why is the New 500 right for Chrysler? CAFE standards. That’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy to you and me. Chrysler’s fuel-efficient Neon and PT Cruiser had outlived their product cycle, and production has ended. The Charger, 300, and Challenger were wildly popular, but are very thirsty. In 2009, Chrysler ranked a distant 8th among domestic auto producers – well behind Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and others. Every small high-mileage car sold helps Chrysler’s fuel economy average. With the dire straits they were facing, no small and efficient designs in the pipeline, and no money for new product development, Chrysler was in a bit of a pickle – and new, higher CAFE standards were just around the corner. Fiat offered a ready-made, proven small car that gets pretty good mileage. A deal was struck, and we’re waiting…

Enlarge this graphic to see a chart of how the Fiat 500 has grown over the years.

The New 500 that the museum has had for a while is a right-hand drive, Irish market car, with a much smaller engine than that proposed for America. While 1.2 liters and 60 HP are adequate, that’s about the nicest thing one can say about the engine. Well, that and it gets 45 MPG! The US market is slated to have a small choice of engines, with the smallest offering about 100 HP. EPA ratings for fuel economy are not yet listed on the FiatUSA website – for a car that was expected to go on sale in December of 2010, there really is not much official information out there. That rollout date was pushed back on December 29th to “sometime in March 2011 as a 2012 model”. No mention of Fiat even appears as of this writing on the Chrysler corporate website! (I hope that Fiat is not playing into the role of Alfa Romeo’s long-awaited return to the US!)

How will the new New 500 fare against other small city cars in this segment? With direct “retro” competition from VW’s New Beetle and BMW’s MINI, plus a dizzying selection of conventional, hybrid, and all-electric competition from all corners of the globe, Fiat may have a tough row to hoe. A combination of styling, content, and low price will be its strong suit, at least in the first round of models. A new high-performance Esseesse model may put it on more even footing with cars such as the MINI Cooper S, and will surely be an affordable, attractive offering in that segment, while future diesel and all-electric models in the planning stages will appeal to those more interested in the planet than performance.

Right now, we’re just waiting to see if Chrysler acknowledges and embraces Fiat, or will Fiat be a bitter pill for American dealerships to swallow? Only time will tell.

Dan Neil, Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive journalist says of the New 500:

“The Fiat 500 will be a hit: “Iconic” is a much-abused word, but it fits the Fiat 500, which was modernized in the manner of the BMW Mini (sic) a couple of years ago. As part of the Chrysler-Fiat merger, the 500 will go on sale in the U.S. this month, and the Alfa-Romeo MiTo next year. For high-school girls, the adorable Fiat 500 will be the new sparkly phone.

Meantime, it satisfies my sense of the absurd that Italians will get a chance to buy the restyled Chrysler 300, rebadged as a Lancia. Can the world ever get that small?“

Source: Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2011

The exhibit “Fiat 500 Through the Years” will be open until Monday, February 13, 2012.

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