Fiat's Bambina Comes of Age Carmakers Cash in on Nostalgia with Molto Retro

They might be badly designed and over-priced, but everyone, it seems, loves a retro car. Especially the automakers, who are cashing in on nostalgia with updated versions of classic '60s cars like the Fiat 500.

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The Fiat 500, 2007 style ...

The Fiat 500, 2007 style ...

The Germans' famous love of all things Italian is partly due to the fact that the two nations have never really understood each other.

The German, with his rudimentary night-school Italian, might greet an Italian with a mangled "Bon chorno, io zono Hans-Detlef." The Italian would respond with a mysterious idiom he is convinced is part of the English language. This linguistic barrier to communication has its benefits: starting an argument is difficult if you don't understand a word the other guy is saying.

Now Turin automaker Fiat has taken the mutual incomprehension to the next level with its latest advertising campaign. Fiat hopes to insert the new version of the company's tiny cult car, the Cinquecento or Fiat 500, into the collective Teutonic consciousness with the words: "You are. We car." With a slogan like that, how can the car fail to find adoring fans?

The shape of the new car closely mimics that of the original Fiat 500, which was first built in 1957. As the epitome of Mediterranean minimalist mobility, the Fiat 500 attained the status of automotive sainthood long ago.

The new Cinquecento manages to be both quintessentially Fiat and, harkening back as it does to such a cult classic, a reflection of a triumphant new beginning for the company. After Fiat's return to profitability under CEO Sergio Marchionne, a philosopher and executive with no previous auto industry experience, the Cinquecento now represents the brand's new and improved image.

And the relaunch is clearly working. Last Friday, Fiat's German import operation reported almost 3,000 advance orders for the new Fiat -- which isn't even available for purchase yet. In fact, the car is already almost sold out for 2007. Manfred Kantner, the head of Fiat Germany, expects to sell at least 15,000 in 2008 -- if he can get enough cars. And Germany isn't the only place where the Cinquecento is a hot item. In Italy and France, where the car was already introduced this summer, more than 80,000 have already been sold and delivered.

Fiat has already counted 7 million visitors to the Web site it created for the new car, www.fiat500.com. Cinquecento aficionados have been only too happy to contribute to the hype, designing mascots in a competition (the winning "cute community mascot" is named Dante), developing an online encyclopedia about their beloved little tin box and even creating ad campaigns.

There are many signs that Fiat will score a similar success with the 500 as BMW did with the new Mini Cooper it introduced in 2001 -- the only thing that remained of its disastrous acquisition of British car company Rover. At the time, even the Munich-based car company's executives vastly underestimated the Mini's market potential. The company's plant in Oxford was initially designed to produce 100,000 cars a year, but was then quickly expanded. Annual sales had already shot up to over 200,000 by 2005.

The Mini's success was all the more surprising because BMW was selling a less-than-perfect product at a high price of between €15,000 and €30,000. The first Minis to hit the market came with outdated, gas-guzzling engines, a hard-to-operate gearshift and many quality problems. Only the second generation is technically up to speed, although that hasn't made it significantly more successful than the first version already was. The car's design was its strongest selling point, both then and now.

... and the 1963 version.
DPA

... and the 1963 version.

Volkswagen had a similar experience with its updated version of the classic Bug, the New Beetle. It has been wildly popular, especially in the US, and even its extremely high price (starting at €17,000) hasn't deterred more than a million buyers to date. On purely objective criteria, the car is a completely failure, while its use of interior space is a joke.

Even though the shape of the Beetle is predestined for a rear engine, the New Beetle was developed on the front-engine Golf platform. The dashboard juts into the interior space of the New Beetle like some bulky plastic plateau. The driver sits at about the center of the vehicle, which is too far back -- the proportions are simply off.

Fiat faced a similar problem but found a more effective solution. The original Cinquecento was also a rear engine car. The new version is a front-engine design based on the platform of the Panda, another small Fiat model -- the only way to produce the car at a reasonable cost. But the Italians managed to incorporate the engine and trunk more elegantly into the classic Fiat's body, and the interplay between interior and exterior design works.

Many design elements cite the classic version with an impressive consistency and attention to detail. Plastic panels on the dashboard, done in the same color as the car body, are reminiscent of the unpainted metal from which the once bare-bones Cinquecento derived its simple beauty. A round instrument panel with a combined speedometer and tachometer unites the straightforward styling of an old-fashioned rotary telephone with the finesse of a postmodern Alessi egg timer.

Technically speaking, of course, this car has nothing in common with the 1957 Cinquecento. The original model had a 13-horsepower engine, topped out at 90 kilometers an hour (56 mph) -- with a tailwind -- and rattled along like a lawnmower. In a collision, it offered about as much protection as a Vespa scooter.

The new version comes with up to 100 horsepower, making it more than twice as speedy. It also offers a phalanx of seven airbags, a safety feature that got it -- as the first and thus far only subcompact car -- a five-star rating in EuroNCAP's European collision safety classification system.

For Fiat, these credentials mark a very convincing emergence from the automotive doldrums. The brand hopes to abandon its reputation as a notorious also-ran and turn itself into a cutting-edge automaker. CEO Marchionne recently ventured a comparison with the computer industry. He wants to see Fiat, he said, become something along the lines of the recently resurrected PC pioneer Apple. For Marchionne the Cinquecento represents "our iPod."

And like the iPod, the Fiat 500 doesn't come cheap. The entry-level price of €10,500 is more than €1,000 higher than that of the Panda, which, as a four-door vehicle, is more practical, roomier and comes equipped with the same basic technology. Both cars are produced in the same plant in Tychy, near the Polish city of Katowice, where Fiat plans to build another derivative of the same platform for Ford in the future, namely the Ka compact. Given the slim profit margins on small cars, these types of joint ventures are not uncommon.

The plant's Eastern European location will not diminish the new Cinquecento's cult car status. After all, most people couldn't care less where their cars are made -- Porsches made in Finland are top sellers.

From a qualitative standpoint, coming from a Polish assembly line is the best thing that could have happened to the new Cinquecento. The Tychy plant has boasted the highest quality standards within the entire Fiat group for years, a persistent source of embarrassment for Fiat's original Italian production sites like the Turin-based Mirafiori plant.

The technical specifications are clearly above average for the subcompact class. Particle filters are standard in the diesel engine, and ESP anti wheel-slip system is available in all models and standard in the top-of-the-line model. Next year the company plans to come out with a 130-horsepower version under Fiat's legendary Abarth brand.

Fiat is also offering a virtually endless line of accessories to capitalize on the car's cult-kitsch image. Diehard Cinquecento fans can dress up their retro cars with decorative stripes in a checkered flag design or the green, white and red colors of the Italian flag, a historically accurate luggage carrier on the rear of the vehicle for use as a vertical ski rack, and even an electronically controlled scent dispenser that sprays a perfume called "Essenza della notte." According to Fiat, the new 500 can be configured in any of 549,936 possible versions.

But no matter how attractive the new Fiat 500 is, "You are. We car." will always be a bad advertising slogan. To make matters worse, Fiat Germany head Manfred Kantner also offers his own translation -- rooted in existential philosophy, no less -- of the slogan. According to Kantner, it means: "You, as a person, are an individual with a wide variety of requirements, and we, as a company, are capable of satisfying all of these requirements."

Well, that's all clear, then. Capisco, capisco.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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