25 September 2009

Dreaming of the Nuova Cinquecento

Find your favorite pair of lips and, asking nicely, have them sing it for you in an Italian whisper: Cinquecento. The mouth starts with a smile, puckers boozily in the middle and finishes open, full of possibility. And that’s just the name. With the Fiat 500 predicted to arrive in what’s left of Chrysler’s showrooms in 2010 and to start American-based production (perhaps in North America, perhaps in South America) in 2011, it’s time to consider what Cinquecento has in store for us.

The original Cinquecento debuted in 1957, when tail fins reigned supreme and Europeans wanted to build domestic car industries to restore their national pride and an industrial base. Where the Beetle’s signature style flowed from its redundant roundness—the eminently sensible curved roof was playfully replicated in hemispherical fenders—the key to the Cinquecento’s styling was all up front.

Most modern cars have a hood that lands flat between integrated fenders. But the original Cinquecento, as well as the new Cinquecento that debuted in Italy in 2007, feature a cowl-shaped hood that sits atop the fender panels. This little touch suggests the there is something powerful beneath, too powerful to be contained below a mere flat hood. Could it be the Supercharged V-8 of a 30s Cord? Might there be a powerful flathead Ford under there? Well, no. The engine’s a pretty tiny 1.2 (the original was air-cooled and in the back) and it sips gas. A base model does 45 MPG on the highway with an eco-gas engine rated at 55 MPG and a diesel at 65. But the effect is of a car that very much wants to be all grown-up. The shape is at once cherubic and full of hormonal energy.

I’m dreaming of the Cinquecento coming to America. Perhaps I’m imagining that it will up the sex-appeal quotient across the country, slimming us down to fit the image of the Cinquecento driver (or simply to fit inside the diminutive Cinquecento), singing “Ciao!” after a quick espresso, then sliding behind the wheel and zipping off to a romantic picnic with Sophia Loren (or Marcello Mastroianni, if you prefer). We’ll all become more demonstrative, dramatic, entertaining. I see a pair of long legs dangling high heels out the rear window—but enough of that. I’m dreaming of so much more.

I’m dreaming of the Cinquecento becoming the first weed to break through the monoculture that is the American road, the first break from the one-size-fits-all mentality that we’ve been hostage to for forty years. This dream was dreamed before, when Volkswagen came to America. But that was another time, when Studebaker still built cars, to say nothing of Nash and Hudson. In the 1960s the Big Three began spraying for weeds, choking out the imports with their own “small cars” like the Ford Falcon. This ensured that imports, in order to succeed, would have to be as sterile as the domestics. So when the New Beetle reemerged as a design study in the 1990s, the Detroit press loyally declared it interesting design study but obviously not a practical car that fat sensible Americans would buy. One journalist opined that VW would never be so foolish as to put it into production.

Despite all the bailouts and bankruptcies, the Cinquecento will be met with the same skepticism from the group-thinking denialistas in Detroit. “Will Americans buy cars engineered by Italians for Europeans?” asked Business Week‘s Detroit Bureau Chief David Welch in June. “History says no … Americans like roomy cars.” Never mind that Honda and Toyota built their brands in this country on cars far smaller than the American land yachts they were competing against.

In time, however, the Cinquecento could burst out of the niche market without turning into the monsters it once beheld (the way Honda and Toyota have; the Volvo, Saab, Jaguar never had a chance). Fiat will have the advantage of Chrysler’s still large national dealer network, a car with game-changing mileage and styling, as well as hybrid and plug-in models on the horizon. Built on the same platform as the Ford Ka (a European model that was itself once a styling leader), the Cinquecento is also ready for high-volume production. Both models are produced in Tychy, Poland—yes, Poland—and work at the huge plant is running flat-out. Adding Cinquecento plants in Mexico or the US would allow production to move beyond niche numbers. The Cinquecento promises to provide the best of BMW’s stylish Mini and Toyota’s sensible, affordable Yaris.

The Cinquecento certainly looks like the right car at the right time. The automobile industry is undergoing a major realignment: China, Brazil, and India are motorizing, while people and their governments demand more sustainable individualized transportation solutions. Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon of the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies have recently published a roadmap to sustainable automobile-based transportation in their book Two Billion Cars. They note that our cars have grown fat. Even cars we remember as small, like the Honda Accord, are small no longer. A new Accord weighs nearly twice as much it did when Jimmy Carter was President and has an engine nearly twice as large. Even the smallest cars—the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris, and yes, the Cinquecento—weigh about 50 percent more than their ilk a generation ago.

So we are back to dreaming of being young and sexy again. If the Cinquecento is merely cute, its buyers will be limited to young women who would otherwise choose a Toyota Echo. If it is merely cool, it may at best cut into the market for Minis. But if it is sexy—and it is—then it could sell and sell. I am not cute and I am not cool but I dream of driving the Cinquecento, shedding mass from my car and myself, enjoying not the first flower of my youth but a kind of second youth infused with the wisdom of age absent its infirmity. That is the dream of the Cinquecento: that we Americans, having finally escaped the tyranny of Detroit, can all be a little slimmer, a little sexier, and, yes, just a little Italiano.

Image: FIAT Nuova 500, 1957. 2009. Ciccio Pizzettaro. Creative Commons License.

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