The Fiat 500 has enjoyed a hugely successful renaissance since it’s re-launch in 2007. So just what is it that makes the 500 such a desirable automobile?
The Fiat 500’s success in part must be down to the surge in ‘modern vintage’ that has swept through the car industry over the past 15 years or so. From the subtle craze for adding chrome piping to modern cars to give that retro-feel, to full retro-inspired models like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, to the New Beetle being launched in 1997 – yes, it really was that long ago.
The original Dante Giacosa designed Fiat 500 pre-dated the modern city car trend that has seen manufacturers move away from large executive vehicles to smaller, more practical cars. This in part due to declining sales for larger cars and pressure to produce more economic vehicles.
First produced in 1957, the Nuova 500 (as it was known) was cheap and cheerful with an air-cooled 479cc engine sitting in the back. Ironically, in many ways the economic climate that was the catalyst for producing this early city car is remarkably similar to the climate that produced the modern Fiat 500 equivalent.
The tiny Fiat proved to be very popular and spawned an estate version as well. The Giardiniera featured larger brakes, a full-length rag-top sunroof (something that has come to be a very desirable feature on old as well as new Fiat 500s) and a 10cm longer wheelbase. The Giardiniera also had the Fiat air-cooled engine flipped over onto its side to allow for more luggage space.
Possibly one of the most enduring things about the Fiat 500 was that it also could boast Abarth sports tuned models in its line-up as well. Abarth of course, are a bit of a legend among early car tuning enthusiasts along with Empi. Abarth, founded as long ago as 1949 by Carlo Abarth, originally just produced performance exhausts helping your car breathe more easily and offering a mild performance increase. From humble beginnings they moved on to supplying full tuning kits, predominantly for Fiat.
Fittingly, the last model of the original Fiat 500 ran from 1972 to 1975 on an Abarth designed engine, which gave the 500 23bhp to play with – a sizeable percentage increase over the more standard 17bhp.
In 2006 Fiat announced that the 500 was to be brought up to date and produced again, with a high profile launch in July 2007. Hints that Fiat were going to do something with the 500 first appeared as far back as 2004 when the Trepiuno concept made an appearance.
Of course, even Porsche these days have gone water-cooled, so it was no surprise that the new 500 featured modern, Euro5 emission standard, more powerful engines designed to cope with modern traffic. The Fiat 500 TwinAir, 2-cylinder 85 PS engine won a Best New Engine award in 2011 a year after its launch.
In 2008, the first of the new Fiat 500 Abarth models appeared with a 1.4 litre engine. Of course, it’s all about power-to-weight ratio and while this might be small in the great scheme of things, the new Fiat 500 is a compact car. The engine, with its RHF3-P turbocharger puts out 135 PS. Of course, the Fiat Abarth 500 combined with the recent re-launch of Abarth itself was a great moment.
Abarth also featured again with the (limited to 100 models) 500 Opening Edition produced purely for the Italian car market. The Abarth Assetto Corse is an even more rare model with just 49 vehicles being produced. With 200 PS, anyone owning one of these would notice a quite dramatic increase in power.
Of course, for you and I the chance of ever owning such limited edition models is practically non-existent, so Fiat/Abarth also produced the Esseesse (SS) which is a conversion/tuning kit in keeping with the finer traditions of companies such as Abarth.
The tuning kit was to be available to all Fiat 500 owners within a period of 1 year from registration or 12,000 miles. With PS uprated to 160, uprated suspension and white or titanium coloured 17-inch wheels, the cost on launch was a fairly reasonable £2,500. Numerous other Abarth models continue to be produced by Fiat.
The much anticipated rag-top 500 was finally revealed in 2009 with an Abarth version (Abarth 500C) appearing a year later.
The 500, being a city car, is of course a prime base for an electric version and in 2010 Fiat showed off the Elettra concept. This has led onto the 500e electric vehicle, which is available for the Californian market. Top Gear rated this Elettra-based 500e as ‘superb’.
Curiously, earlier this year Sergio Marchionne released a press statement seemingly asking customers to not buy the 500e as it cost the company too much money per vehicle to produce. Delving a bit deeper, it transpires that Fiat have been sort of been left between a rock and a hard place due to California’s zero emissions policy – put simply, they needed to produce the 500e to continue trading in California.
It will be interesting to see how this pans out; with Fiat acutely aware that the rest of the automotive world is looking at the praise the 500e has received.
All in all, I’ve been quite taken with the new Fiat 500, for a small car it’s quite roomy inside and has a light, airy feel and great looks. Thanks to the strong links with Abarth, the 500 should remain one of the coolest cars about town.
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