There’s no mistaking the vehicle you see here. It’s undoubtedly a Fiat 500, and a cursory glance leaves the impression that it hasn’t changed much.
It’s true, some things haven’t changed: the next-generation Fiat 500 is still small, still a two-door, still comes in hardtop or cabriolet form, and it still wears the overall design of the previous one, albeit with subtle alterations. And yet there’s a serious change afoot here, hiding beneath a vehicle that has, actually, grown a little.
Fiat Chrysler will invest $788 million to build a production line for the new 500 electric, according to the company’s European CFO Pietro Gorlier. An extension of automaker’s plan to to dump 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) into Italy, the deal makes good on earlier promises that the automaker would establish a dedicated small battery-electric vehicle platform.
Faced with a tough market, what’s an automaker to do when trying to make noise in a crowded arena? Introduce a special edition, of course.
Fiat’s done just that with its 2018 Fiat 500 Banana Cabana Urbana Edition. The company is dropping this version of the 500 at this week’s New York Auto Show.
TTAC commentator AMC_CJ writes:
My retired mother has come to the conclusion that she needs a 2nd car. Currently she has a 06′ Trailblazer that she keeps in mint condition, and despite having issues with the headlights going out automatically, and a lengthy dealing with GM, it’s been a good vehicle (and to GM’s credit, we think they finally found and fixed the problem with little expense to her). She loves her Trailblazer and it’s perfect for running up to our homestead in WV. But it’s the only car she has, and when it was in the shop recently it left her with a sub-par loaner she couldn’t drive very far. When I lived at home, I lent my parents a vehicle out of my own fleet when they needed.
Abarth was founded in 1952 as a “one-stop-shop” for Fiat performance gear. What does that have to do with the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth? Nothing. Seriously. In 1971 Abarth was purchased by Fiat, by the 1990s the “brand” had deteriorated to a trim level on questionable hatchbacks and by 2000 it was “dead trim walking.” In 2007 Fiat decided they needed a performance brand once again and resurrected Abarth with the inexplicably named “Fiat Grande Punto Abarth” and (more importantly) a complete line of clothing and accessories. Despite the apparent soft start for the brand in the Euro-zone, Fiat tells us they held nothing back for the launch of Abarth in North America. Our own tame racing driver Jack took the Abarth for a spin on the track back in March but this time we’re pitting Italy’s hot hatch against a bigger challenge: the daily commute.
With today’s official confirmatio n that Fiat’s US market brand boss, Laura Soave, has been replaced by Timothy Kuniskis, there’s more than a little attention being paid to the Fiat 500’s stateside sales and marketing. Which is something of a curious state of affairs; after all, when the 500 was introduced to Europe, it was quite well-received by the press and public. In hopes of tracking down some kind of explanation for this discrepancy, I hit Youtube looking for ads introducing the Fiat 500 to European markets. The first spot I found can be seen above, and it encapsulates how I feel the 500 probably should have been introduced to the US: with one simple, smart, timeless ad. Instead we got a flurry of disjointed, uncoordinated efforts, with Jennifer Lopez eventually dominating the Cinquecento‘s image almost by default. Could this explain why the 500’s US sales have disappointed?
After an early downturn in sales, it appeared that Fiat might be distancing its 500 from the Jennifer Lopez-dominated image that hasn’t been panning out so well. With the debut of the 500 Abarth at the LA Auto Show, the ad shown above kept the sex-factor high, but focused far more on the male market. Perhaps sensing a shift in direction, Bloomberg asked Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne last week if the brand’s boss Laura Soave would be keeping her job despite the weak sales. Still undecided, Marchionne replied in the affirmative
For the time being.
That was last Wednesday. Over the weekend, something seems to have changed…
I was not the only person to predict that the Fit 500 would enjoy strong initial sales and then flop as the novelty wore off… and I was half right! Sales climbed early, peaking at around 3k units per month this summer before dropping precipitously in September and October. In August were still wondering if the 500 could become a classic, but as of November 1, Fiat 500 inventory stood at a staggering 184 days. Now, Automotive News [sub] quotes UAW officials as saying that
Chrysler Group has suspended production this month of the 1.4-liter FIRE engine that powers the Fiat 500 in North America because of slow U.S. sales of the subcompact
Throw “Sport” on a car, and I’m going to expect certain things from it. So I wasn’t kind to the first FIAT 500 I reviewed. But, as with people, I’m always willing to give a car a second take from a more amenable angle. To avoid bits I didn’t care for, I requested the base-level “Pop” trim with an automatic transmission. Chrysler counter-offered a top-level Lounge. In brown. With brown leather. Not quite what I asked for, but as a member of the Brown Car Appreciation Society (sans card, alas) I felt duty bound to accept.
Due to the state of the economy and the price of gasoline in America, it’s no small wonder small car sales are on fire. For those that wish to hide the fact that they have downsized for sensible reasons like lower operating costs, there is a segment of the market just for you: small retro cars. While everyone has tried their hand at this game from Chrysler’s PT cruiser, Chevy’s HHR and the continual resurrection of the VW Beetle, nobody seems to have hit the nail as squarely on the head as BMW with their Mini franchise and their 40,000 in yearly sales. What’s the new Italian owner of an American car company and dealer network to do? Sell a “minier” Mini-fighter of course.
I haven’t been to Italy, in 21 years. My cousins and I are having dinner together for the first time in 21 years. If I didn’t already know it, I’d have learned it now: males with Italian blood are obsessed with cars. My cousin Nicola even works for FIAT, in the seaside town of Termoli.
“Are there Fiats at Chrysler stores in Canada now?” he asks.
“Just the 500,” I inform.
“That’s not the real 500,” says Angelo, his younger brother. Two hours later, we’re in my Nonna’s garage. He pulls the tarp off a stunning, perfectly restored 1968 Fiat 595 SS Abarth. “Quest’è la vera Cinquecento!” he informs me.
It’s been over a quarter-century, so perhaps my memory grows hazy. But I recall enjoying the small, light subcompacts of the mid-1980s tremendously. They didn’t have much power. Power wasn’t a requirement, just a willingness to rev and to be tossed sideways through curves. I’ve spent the years since trying to recapture that experience. And failing. Too much mass. Too much tire. Even too much refinement. But FIAT’s not famed for refinement. And, at 2,363 pounds, the reborn 500 (pronounced “cinquecento”) is a quarter-ton lighter than today’s compacts. So perhaps my search is over?