The Europeans have some cars that are utterly incomprehensible to North Americans. It’s no real surprise however, because our automotive circumstances are very different. Gasoline is ruinously expensive in Europe, and the older parts of the cities were built before cars became popular, so there’s simply no room for a Lincoln Town Car, or instance. When compared, it’s no exaggeration to say that in general, American cars are big and thirsty, and European cars are small and efficient.
Take, for example, the Fiat 500, produced from 1957 to 1975. It’s a rear-engine, rear-drive car offered with three engines throughout the years, with the largest displacing just 594 cc, or 0.6 litres if you prefer your engines measured that way.
The engine wasn’t big, nor was the whole car. The original Volkswagen Beetle is 4.08 m (160.6 in) long, while the Fiat is a mere 2.97 m (116.9 in) long. The Beetle is no giant, but it’s more than a full metre longer than the Fiat! It’s not the smallest car you’ve ever seen though. The current Smart Fortwo Coupé is shorter than the Fiat, at 2.69 m (106.1 in), though the Smart is 20 cm wider, as well.
So why am I writing about it? Before you get the creeping feeling of “what’s old is new again” dread, I’m here to tell you what’s old is indeed new again. The Beetle, the Mini, the Challenger, the Mustang, the Camero, and now the Fiat 500.
Our European friends are already well aware of this because the new Fiat 500 was set loose three years ago and has been quite a success despite the economic down-turn.
It’s no great beauty, that’s for certain. It does have a personality, though. I just am not sure I like that personality.
What’s even a bigger surprise to me than their bringing it back, is that this car is coming to North America. Reports aren’t consistent, but it could go on sale here as early as next month.
It’s certainly bigger than the original incarnation, measuring 3.55 m (139.6 in), but still significantly shorter than the original Beetle. There are some differences between the model coming to these shores as compared to the European model. A significant difference is the engine will be made in Michigan. It’s a 1.4 litre gasoline engine offering an unimpressive 101 hp. I’ll drop dead in surprise if a diesel engine makes it over here because of another big difference in the North American Fiat: it’s a Chrysler.
Fiat partnered with the floundering Chrysler in 2009 so it’s not a surprise that they’d be sharing technology.
What does surprise me is they’re bringing the 500 here, whole.
And looking at the situation now, I’m sorry to say that I don’t see Chrysler enjoying the same success with it that Fiat had. It’s cute, and like the Beetle and Mini, it will certainly sell. I suspect however, that it’ll be more a fad than anything, much as the new Beetle turned out to be. Sure it was big news in 1998, but they aren’t selling like hotcakes now. Cute sells upon release, but I think it kills sales later on.
I expect the North American Fiat to make a similarly large splash, and have an even steeper drop-off in sales. Why? Because it’s really small, without any other advantages to offset the disadvantages of its size. Those advantages are typically excellent fuel economy and low cost.
I can’t find definite fuel economy numbers but the consensus seems to be a combined figure of about 7 litres/100 km (34 miles per US gallon). Frankly, this is better than the average car manufactured by any of the North American big three, but that’s also not saying very much. My 2006 Jetta TDI have averaged 5.9 litres/100 km (40 miles per US gallon) and while it is diesel, it’s also dragging around 50% more mass. I haven’t heard of a diesel option being available, and I wouldn’t expect it from Chrysler.
The consensus on the cost is that it will be less than $20,000 here in Canada. Just. Expect it to be more than $19,000. And why? The Smart starts at $13,990. You get small, cheap, and a combined efficiency of 5.4 litres/100 km (44 miles per US gallon). Save $6000, and half a litre of gasoline for every 100 km you drive. If you’re willing to accept slightly less fuel economy, you can get a Honda Fit for $14,480, a Honda Civic for $14,990, or a Toyota Yaris or a Mazda 2 for $13,995. None of these cars have a combined fuel economy rating of worse than 6.4 litres/100 km (37 miles per US gallon) so assuming a fuel cost of $1.10 per litre, you save 55¢ for every 100 km you drive, and that’s in addition to the $5000+ you save when buying any of these alternatives.
It’s a shame, too. One of the engine options available for the current Fiat 500 is the 1.3 litre 16v Multijet II. It offers 94 hp and 150 lb/ft, all the while delivering a European (EC 1999/100) combined fuel economy rating of 3.9 litres/100 km (60 miles per US gallon). Yes, you read that correctly. I have no doubt that the European tests to determine the fuel economy ratings are different than ours, but still … 3.9?! That shreds the Smart Fortwo! Yes, but note that it shreds the 5.4 litre/100 km rating of the North American gasoline-powered Smart Fortwo. In Europe, where they are wise enough to offer a diesel option, the 500 is shredded by the diesel Fortwo’s combined rating of 3.3 litres/100 km (72 miles per US gallon).
So it’s small, offering only cuteness to offset all the downsides of being small. Consequently, I don’t see the 500 making much of a lasting impact in North America.
Photo of the old Fiat 500 by Rudolf Stricker. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. From the Fiat 500 Wikipedia entry.
Photo of the new Fiat 500 by Kevin Hutchinson. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. From the Fiat 500 (2007) Wikipedia entry.