2008 Fiat 500

It was July 4, 1957, and, like the rest of Europe, Italy was still stuck in a post-World War II economic malaise. But then on that Thursday fifty years ago came the Nuova 500 from Fiat and, almost as though the car had triggered it overnight, Italy started to realize the boom of consumerism. That day, Fiat had a parade of 120 “Cinquecento” open-top cars drive all over downtown Turin for hours, each car sprouting a pretty woman dressed in her Sunday best. Today, most Italians who were in Italy through the Sixties and Seventies have a diary full of Cinquecento stories.

Things are far different in today’s car world; having a rolling metal container that’s cute and perfect for city traffic on ancient narrow streets isn’t enough, with or without the pretty girl. There are safety concerns and environmental watchdog groups, and dependability is paramount. Dealer networks actually need to help customers—not exactly a Fiat strength until maybe four years ago. And now, the wee 500 needs to conquer the world—not just Italy. This model launch is being characterized as the cherry on top of a great gelato sundae of successes over the past few years, or ever since Fiat extracted itself from its General Motors partnership.

We were honored with an advance drive of the tyke and this new 500, in our opinion, rivals the sensational job BMW did with the new Mini in most respects. What is most intriguing for us, of course, is the heavy hinting from Turin bosses that the 500 could come to North America by 2010 labeled as an Abarth, producing from 130 up to a rumored 180 horsepower. This would be stunning.

Of the three four-cylinder powertrains initially available (as of July 7 in Italy)—a 68-horsepower 1.2-liter and a 98-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine; and a 74-horsepower 1.3-liter common-rail, direct-injection diesel—we naturally took to the largest-capacity engine first. The 500 sits on the chassis built for the Panda SUV 4x4 edition (which we also adore), so it benefits from the slightly wider stance of that model, plus a longer wheelbase. Not surprisingly, the drive feel from the 1.4-liter 500 is almost identical to that of the Panda “100HP” model.

Throttle response in this top-of-the-line launch edition is not at all brisk—acceleration to 62 miles per hour happens in 10.5 seconds and this is the fastest of the trio—and steering at speed can exhibit a little too much understeer, sort of like on the Smart ForTwo. Aside from these two bits to look out for, the 500 drive is a thoroughly entertaining experience with solid road manners, very good cabin flexibility, and a sea of cuteness points that carry it on to outright victory in the Adorable Wars versus any other car out there.

Trim levels available to all Fiat markets include Pop, Lounge, and Sport, and ours was a fully loaded Lounge edition with sunroof, plug-in MP3 and sat-nav capabilities, digital readouts, and a sport mode button that helps steering feel and throttle response. The possibilities for the interior are seemingly endless and we really like the various hearkenings back to the original Nuova 500 of 1957 (a car that itself replaced the original 500 “Topolino” first ordered from Fiat by Benito Mussolini in 1930). The 1960s-theme interior on this Lounge 1.4-liter is absolutely magical stuff and assembly and material qualities are tops. The feel and look of some of the switchgear and dash panels is borderline Bakelite.

This was the primary concern throughout the development of this 500: would the execution by Fiat—traditionally a consistent source of disappointment—and the factory in Poland live up to the sentimental visions of people like us? Well, it honestly does live up to all that pressure this time. In fact, it easily exceeds our wildest expectation. Now, as regards North America, there just needs to be a hot 1.4-liter turbo, since anything less will lump it too far in with the tiny-tot Smart car in buyers’ minds. Because in the fashion-conscious and age-group marketing senses, the 500 is a huge hit, but it will need Mini-style mechanical capabilities as well for certain markets.

The exterior is the real calling card, though. Even if you have never seen or heard of the Nuova 500 F series built between 1965 and 1972, just do some World Wide Web cruising and you’ll spot the heritage similarities. The face is quite particular; that design leader Roberto Giolito was able to keep this look on the face of the new car is somewhat remarkable given its sheer uniqueness in comparison to any other car built in the world today. In the back, former Fiat Auto design leader Frank Stephenson (now in charge of Alfa Romeo’s design force) tells us that without the small rear spoiler at the top of the rear glass, the drag coefficient would have ballooned to 0.40. With the seemingly cosmetic spoiler, that figure plunges to 0.32. “We preferred the look without the spoiler as on the original Nuova 500, but aerodynamics were really important this time for efficiency’s sake,” adds Stephenson.

While the 1.2-liter gas and 1.3-liter diesel both get a perfectly adequate five-speed manual shifter, our 1.4-liter gas tester comes with a six-speed gearbox that improves highway cruising capabilities by a healthy margin. The Lounge also came with disc brakes all around (ventilated in front), and they improve braking feel quite a bit versus the smaller units on other models. Overall maneuverability, as you can imagine in a car that is less than 140 inches long (compare to a Mini at 146 inches long, or to a Smart at just 106 inches), is a 500 forte.

And what about safety and pollution? First, Fiat has engineered all three four-cylinder engines to easily satisfy the Euro5 emissions regulations that go into effect in 2009. For safety, standard air bags number seven in all, and the 500 is the smallest car ever to get a five-star rating in its Euro NCAP crash testing.

The Abarth concept for the 500 will be shown at Tokyo in October and, designer Giolito tells us, “all body panels are altered and the feeling is definitely all-sport.” There were 30,000 cars sold prior to the start of deliveries and there’s no sign of that enthusiasm waning any time soon.