Any minute now a fleet of some two dozen 2012 Fiat 500c’s — the “c” standing for cabrio – would be unleashed into the nether byways of Manhattan’s Soho district to travel the highways and back roads of the nearby Hudson Valley countryside. But first, a brief word about the car from Laura Soave, Head of FiatNorth America. “It’s small, it’s feminine, it’s Italian,” she said to the applause of the assembled press and PR minions.
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There was no denying these attributes; if “small and feminine and Italian” were all that Americans were looking for, then Fiat would have a slam dunk on its hands. But of course there had been other vehicles bearing the same Fiat badge, similarly Italian, diminutive, and stylish, and where were they today? For that matter, even though Fiat hasn't sold a single car in the U.S. in some 27 years how often would Soave be reminded — however good naturedly — of the era when Fiat meant “Fix it again, Tony?”
It was apparent at a glance that this newest Fiat was not your Uncle Tomaso’s daily driver. Jack Smith
On the other hand, it was apparent at a glance that this newest Fiat was not your Uncle Tomaso’s daily driver. While the newest Italian microcar looked like an oversized gumdrop on the streets of Manhattan and retained the whimsical “nose and whiskers” face of the original cinquecento, it appeared downright limo-like by way of comparison with its even tinier antecedent.
The differences transcended notions of size. Since its introduction at the 2007 Turin Auto Show the Italian carmaker has emerged as a paragon of technology and modernity earning such kudos as 2008 European Car of the Year and 2009 World Car Design of the Year. Its MultiAir Technology, meanwhile, said to cut emissions while increasing power and mileage, was named the "Single Most Innovative Engine Technology" of 2010 by the International Engine of the Year Awards panel.
Even so, it was curious that Fiat would try to corner the market on “smaller, feminine, and Italian” at a time when at least one competitor —Volkswagen— was moving to re-brand its Beetle as being bigger, more masculine, and more German. In view of the sensibilities that led to bringing the 500 back it is no less remarkable that Fiat had considered re-badging it as a Chrysler, the marque the Italian carmaker had acquired in 2009. To understand the difference in appeal, imagine yourself at a sidewalk café on the Via Veneto holding a glass of Barolo while telling companions you drive a chin-que-chen-to. Now project that same mental picture while saying “Small Chrysler”.
It’s not quite the same, is it? For that matter, as Soave explained, buyers in the USA wouldn’t find the 500 at dealerships or showrooms but instead in studios, stylish temples to la dolce vita and Italian motoring. “We wanted to keep the Chrysler buyer and the Fiat buyer separate,” she explained.
This morning I would be co-driving with Jacques Duval, former racecar driver and newly inducted member of Canada’s Racing Hall of Fame. The plan called for us to head north out of Manhattan and drive along the Hudson before rendezvous-ing with our fellow drivers in the scenic town of Rhinecliff. We could motor at our own pace with nary a worry of out-running the pack or lagging behind; with a map, written directions, and a GPS in the glove compartment it would be impossible to get lost. This was good, as I had a train to catch from Rhinecliff and my schedule was tight.
We started out with Duval behind the wheel; from the passenger seat my immediate impression was that there was plenty of legroom for anyone 5’10” while the double layered cloth top allows for greater headroom than the hardtop version. Bouncing along the potholed streets of Soho the little Fiat displayed minimal flex. It was harder to say what to make of the avocado-hued interior and the retro-styled dashboard with the cream-colored knobs, so reminiscent of kitchen appliances from the 1960s.
An hour or so out of the city I swapped places with Duval just as the surroundings turned most scenic. Vineyards covered the opposite slopes, whitewashed mansions gleamed from the riverbanks, and it was easy to see why the Hudson was called America’s Rhine River. We’d dropped the top to make the most of the sun and the scenery and the ride was all the more enjoyable for the taut handling and positive brake action. It felt not quite as go-kart-y as the first Mini I’d ever driven though more ziggy than a Beetle. Even so I felt totally at ease cruising at speed on the highways, a confidence I never had with the Smart Car.
There was just one problem; either the Hudson was on the wrong side of the highway or we were. There was no denying the reality of our situation; for at least a half hour we had been traveling in the wrong direction. Now it was time to start lead-footing it in the other direction to make up time. Surprisingly the little Fiat felt remarkably stable as the speedometer wound beyond the 90 mph mark and we plunged down into the chute formed by the highway barrier and surrounding traffic. “I thought highways were supposed to be wide,” said Duval as we squeezed through a hole in the traffic at a speed much faster than either of us might have liked.
Remarkably we made it unscathed to the postcard-y village of Rhinecliff in plenty of time to make my train with lunch thrown in. My only regret was that the entire day had flown by without so much as a mention of the tune that made the Fiat 500 an icon of pop culture in Europe of the early 1990s. Who can forget the band Lush and their big hit, “Shake Baby Shake.”
Shake, baby, shake, you know I can fit you in my arms
Brake, baby, brake, taking me in with all your charms
I've never been inside you but you're so alluring
They call you "little mouse" by name in Rome and Turin
Looking now at your famous shape
They don't make them like you any more
But now, as we all know, they do.
Fiat 500c Facts and Figures
Subcompact two-door convertible
Front-engine, front-wheel drive
Four cylinder DOHC turbo
Five-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
Zero to 60 mph
30/38 mpg (manual); 27/34 (automatic)
Base price (incl destination charges)
Double cloth top retracts at speeds up to 60 mph.