Some have argued that the 1957 Fiat 500, known then as the Nuova 500, was “a piece of genius.” That’s how BBC’s Top Gear put it, adding that because this car was so novel and innovative, the 500 “set the pace” for future bits of automotive brilliance like the 1959 Austin Mini.
Indeed, Top Gear concluded that “the Fiat 500 is the greatest car in the world.” Top Gear is hardly alone. Edmunds.com, in fact, ranks the original Cinquecento No. 25 on its list of the Greatest 100 Cars of All Time.
Most who know these things agree that the 500 of the ‘50s is a classic, — a clever conjuring of creativity borne of economic crisis. Here was Fiat’s solution to the financial limits of a country and people rebuilding after WW II. The Cinquecento, of course, was the answer to Italy’s post-war middle class transportation needs.
In 2017 when we think of Fiat, minds race to the 500, a cheap and tiny little car that arrived with an appealing look and an incredibly flexible design. Sure, Fiat made a coupe and convertible 500, but there were also sporty versions like the R, and bigger, even more practical ones like the 500 Giardiniera wagon from 1960-1975 and a panel van called the 500 Furgoncino.
I suppose some also associate Fiat with truly gorgeous cars. The 124 Spider from 1966-82, the 1200 Turismo Veloce, convertible and the Fiat Dino Coupe come to mind. Any discussion of Fiat needs to include the 124 sedan, a collaboration with the old Soviet government that also spun off the Lada or Zhiguli. And who can forget the 1960 600 Multipla, a six-passenger mini minivan that was the perfect taxi.
But let’s be honest: Fiat is the 500. Fiat Chrysler (FCA) officials in North America appear to have had only a superficial understanding of all this when they relaunched Fiat here in 2012.
They positioned the 500 as a kind of sporty design statement worthy of a premium price, not a bargain-basement, mass-market line of runabouts aimed at younger buyers who crave style but lack cash. Today, the least expensive 500 lists for more than $19,000. That’s a crazy price.
Worse, FCA has failed to get the quality right. Fiat finished dead last in the just-released J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. Earlier this year, Fiat also was at the very bottom of J.D. Power’s long-
term Vehicle Dependability Study. Fiat also mined the deepest depths of Consumer Reports’ 2017 Brand Report Card. Shoddy workmanship at a premium price is not a formula for success.
And so Fiat in Canada remains the most niche of niche brands. To date, just 1,752 Canadians have bought some sort of Fiat. In fairness, Canadian sales are up 71 per cent on the year, but that only shows how bad things were in 2016.
Fiat’s current Canadian lineup has been boosted by the latest 124 Spider, a joint venture roadster with Mazda that is a treat to drive and a pleasure to see. But it starts at $33,495.
Fiat also sells a little all-wheel-drive SUV, the 500X ($30,950 base). This is Fiat’s version of Jeep’s Renegade. Neither is a design masterpiece and both drive like pigs. This joint venture SUV within the FCA family has been a stunning disappointment.
And then we have the 500L, a long-wheelbase, four-door 500 that starts at $25,245. This may not be the ugliest car for sale in Canada today, but if it isn’t, what is?
Fiat in 2017, then, is a mess. The basic 500 two-door, coupe and convertible, has a certain charm, but the lineup top to bottom is just too expensive.
Yes, I’ve had loads of fun tossing about the 500 Abarth, but it’s nearly $30,000 to start. Yikes. The 500L is a visual catastrophe, the 500X is the automotive equivalent of a root canal and the 124 Spider is nice but hardly novel. Mazda has been selling the MX-5 Miata for decades.
Fiat in 2017, at least in North America, is a brand in crisis. Today’s lineup has nothing in common with the greatness of the 500 in 1957, other than a name and some design cues. It is not a work of genius by any measure. As a whole, the 500 can be fairly called an over-priced, poorly-built collection of grocery-getters.
Perhaps it’s impossible to reimagine Fiat for today’s North American buyer by digging into the truly great roots of the brand – creative designs at spectacularly affordable prices. If that’s the case, Fiat won’t be here in Canada for much longer.