I’ve never taken hard drugs but I think I’ve now got a fair idea of what an acid trip is like following the launch of the Fiat 500.
The Italians are quite an exciteable bunch and they gave their enthusiasm full rein at the launch of the new retro-styled city car.
I sat on the banks of the River Po in Turin and watched a two-hour spectacular which featured, among other things, a Beatles tribute band, dancing elephants (people dressed as, rather than the real animal), an Italian TV star singing happy birthday à la Marilyn Monroe, fireworks, cars driving up the river (honestly) and a 30-foot woman floating upstream. Oh, and a live performance from Lauryn Hill from The Fugees who was belting out a few numbers while her stage was pushed up river by a tugboat.
All of this was in the presence of the Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and various other dignitaries from business and showbiz. The Pope wasn’t there in person, but I’m sure he must have sent out a prayer, and most of Turin was taken over by Fiat with 500-themed events dotted around the city’s piazzas.
Surreal just isn’t the word, but it gives you some idea of the importance Fiat is putting on its new 500 – launched 50 years to the day since the original rear-engined model first appeared.
In much the same way as BMW reinvented the Mini with the new MINI, and subsequent new, new MINI, Fiat is playing its retro hand with a car that takes the styling of the original 500 and adapts it to today’s needs.
The 500 is based on the platform of the Panda, but instead of a boxy look it is all curves and bubbles – not a square line in sight. Much as the new MINI successfully reinvented the brand, so the 500 brings the quirky original bang up to date.
And following on from MINI’s lead, the 500 will be available with countless optional extras giving up to 500,000 permutations. Order a 500 and you have the choice of not only bigger wheels and a better stereo but myriad personalisation items such as a chequered flag roof, extra chrome and stickers – even a bespoke key fob.
The 500 has already gone on sale in mainland Europe but we won’t get the car over here until January next year. Other than that, there’s little in the way of information available.
Fiat hasn’t finalised specifications, pricing or volumes for the UK, and this makes it hard to categorise the car.
In Italy the 500 is priced between 10,500 and 14,500, but expect it to cost more than that once it comes to us in right-hand drive form from the factory in Poland. Initial estimates put the 500 at between £9,000 and £11,500, which undercuts the MINI significantly but costs a lot more than the Panda on which it is based (£7,000-£10,000).
The challenge for Fiat will be to ensure that it builds up significant hype to justify the premium over the Panda.
That shouldn’t be too difficult as the 500’s quirky yet modern looks and efficient powertrains should ensure it goes down a storm, especially with female buyers and city dwellers.
As a fashion accessory the 500 should stand proudly alongside a Prada handbag or a small, yappy dog.
Behind the wheel
Look at the 500 and you can’t fail but be seduced by its cheeky look, and the theme continues inside with a simplistic, retro feel backed up by a raft of modern technology.
With a chunky three-spoke steering wheel, high-mounted gearbox and a single slab of fascia, everything is close to hand. Buyers can even change the dashboard colour to match the car’s exterior – our test car with a red fascia looked fantastico, as they say in Italy.
Under the retro look is the Windows Mobile-based Blue&Me system which offers hands-free Bluetooth mobile phone compatibility, voice recognition control, text message interpreter and a USB port to plug in an MP3 player. There’s also a navigation module which can be added which features an SOS emergency function to call 999.
Although there are four seats, the rear items are only suitable for small children, while the boot is small but offers a more useable space than that in the MINI.
Due to getting horrendously lost in the middle of Turin, I only managed to drive the entry-level 1.2-litre model. It is too underpowered for this car, with acceleration away from traffic lights being very slow. Colleagues were far more impressed with the punchy 1.4 model which offers 100bhp.
Despite being slow, the 500 feels alive when moving – a slightly bumpy ride, slick gearbox and quick steering adding up to a busy driving experience which suits the 500’s natural city habitat well.
The 500 looks fabulous and drives well – you simply cannot help but smile when you’re behind the wheel. The 1.2 petrol is woefully underpowered so go for the 1.4 petrol which has the zippy power to live up to the 500’s looks. Fiat is on to a winner here, just so long as it doesn’t get carried away with the pricing.
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||69/5,000||100/6,000||75/4,500|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||75/3,000||97/4,250||107/1,500|
|Max speed (mph):||99||113||102|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||55.4||44.8||67.2|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||119||149||111|
|On sale: January|
|Prices (est): £9,000-£11-500|