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Fiat 500: On Its Way.

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Revived Chrysler to bring award-winning retro Italian minicar to U.S. market.

Early one morning at the New York Auto Show, in April 2009, two rows of neatly positioned automobiles stood in darkened corridors at the side of the auditorium. Several would soon receive World Car of the Year awards in specific categories. One patient contender for the Design prize, a mini-sized blue car with a curiously compelling profile, seemed caught between bashful reticence and youthful enthusiasm.

Fiat 500 - Design Car of the Year Winner.

Fiat 500 - Design Car of the Year Winner.
Only when the speaker named the three finalists did some audience members note the identity of that blue minicar. It was the Fiat 500, deliciously shaped like its Italian predecessor of a half-century ago, and revived in modern form. Moments later, this little Fiat captured the Design of the Year trophy, beating the Jaguar XF and Citroen C5. No one appeared to argue about the decision. Fiat's 500 simply oozes flair, charm, and Italian style-not unlike its corporate cousins from Maserati and Ferrari.

When the last Fiat automobiles journeyed from Italy to American dealerships, Ronald Reagan was serving his first term as President. Officially, those final Fiats were 1983 models: Spider two-seat sports cars and X1/9 sport coupes. Spiders hung on until 1986, but they wore Pininfarina badges. Bertone badging went on the final X1/9 coupes.

Movie fans might know that a cartoon version of the original Fiat 500, named "Luigi," played a pivotal role in the 2006 Disney-Pixar animated film, Cars. To most U.S. motorists, though, the Fiat brand is only a dim memory. (Photo copyright at The Walt Disney Company.)

Luigi. Fiat 500 Disney Pixar.

Luigi. Fiat 500 Disney Pixar.
Fiat's prominence in the American automotive mind took a surprising turn in spring of 2009, when the ailing Chrysler company announced that it was engaged in talks, with an eye toward becoming part of the Italian automaker's empire. After weeks of discussion, the two firms stated their intention to join. Fiat would acquire 20 percent of Chrysler in exchange for Fiat's smaller-car technology (no cash changing hands). After all the back and forth negotiating and legal debates, it has recently been announced that the shapely Fiats will indeed see American shores and roadways once again. Founded in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli, the Fiat company had an early American connection. Between 1910 and 1918, Fiat motorcars were built in Poughkeepsie, New York.

What really brought Fiat to American attention were the minicars that reached U.S. dealerships after World War II. Only a handful arrived by the early 1950s, including the super-cute 500 Topolino (loosely translated as "little mouse"), a tiny two-seater that debuted in 1936 and used a four-cylinder engine ahead of its radiator. Regular importation began with the 500 series of 1957. Fitted with a rear-mounted 479-cc two-cylinder engine developing a tepid 15 horsepower, this 500 carried four passengers and cost a bit over $1,000. Fiat also launched a series of race-oriented Fiat-Abarths.

Fiat 500C.

Fiat 500C.
Like the Citroen 2CV in France, the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento in Italian) was often a young driver's first car. Director Federico Fellini evidently liked the 500, too, placing the cars prominently in such films as La Dolce Vita. More recently, in England, Top Gear magazine has called the Fifties 500 the "sexiest car ever."

Measuring a mere 110 inches long, the early 500 had "suicide" (rear-hinged) doors, a rear-mounted 479-cc engine, and a four-speed manual gearbox-which lacked the synchronizers that made for far easier shifting on most cars. Between 1957 and 1975, more than 3.7 million Fiat 500s were built, though exports to America ceased along the way.

Sports-car fans fell instead for Fiat two-seaters, lured by their rich, carefully penned lines. Sales stagnated, however, partly due to the Italian brand's growing reputation for mechanical problems. Enthusiasts often shook their heads, playfully explaining that Fiat may as well have stood for "Fix It Again, Tony."

Fresh-Air 500.

Fresh-Air 500.
Over the years, mini-sized Fiats gained wide audiences in Europe and elsewhere. Americans, in contrast, would never swoon over unconventional, economy-minded minicars. Or would they? History records that dozens of European automakers-Renault, Morris, Lloyd, Goliath-sent small-sized cars to America in the late 1950s, '60s, and into the 1970s.

Fiat used an early 500 as its model for a concept car called the Trepiuno, which appeared at the Geneva (Switzerland) motor show in 2004. Favorable public response, accompanied by new corporate management with Sergio Marchionne as CEO, paved the way for the decision to turn it into a production model.

Interior Styling.

Interior Styling.
Italians cheered when the revived 500 debuted as a 2008 model. At close to 140 inches, the current four-passenger 500 is 30 inches longer than the original. Fiat 500s actually are built in Poland, on the platform of the Panda (Fiat's least-expensive model). Seven airbags are installed, including a driver's knee airbag. Diesel and gasoline engines are offered in Europe. The Abarth edition uses a 135-horsepower turbo.

Rather than compare the Fiat 500 to current subcompacts like the Chevrolet Aveo or Toyota Yaris, a more logical example would be the Mini Cooper. Also evolved from an early model, BMW's Mini emphasizes style and flair, along with potent handling skills, over modest dimensions. Like the Mini, Fiat's 500 emphasizes personalization. More than a hundred accessories are available.

1948 Fiat Topolino.

1948 Fiat Topolino.
Homologation (preparing a foreign-made vehicle for U.S. sale) might take 18 months, according to Automotive News magazine, which predicts that half a dozen Fiat models may reach an American audience by 2011-12. Airbags have to be bigger. Lighting standards differ between the U.S. and Europe. So do emissions regulations and crash-test procedures.

When the dust settles from the Chrysler bankruptcy proceedings, Fiat's Marchionne will head the company. Fans of that revived 500, victorious at the New York show, are no doubt excited that Marchionne will be bringing the cuddly minicar along with him.



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