1957 Fiat 500.
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History is doing that whole repeating itself thing again. Back in the late 1950s, European buyers got to choose between the two coolest small cars on the planet: Britain's BMC Mini and Italy's tiny rear-engined 500.
Now, 50 years later, Fiat launches an all-new 500 to offer the toughest challenge yet to the BMW-engineered take on the Mini. With Renault also joining the fray with the second-generation Twingo, European buyers looking for a high-fashion supermini have never had it so good.
Well before going on sale, the new 500's cult status was ensured. Fiat kept close to the styling and proportions of the Trepiuno concept that wowed the crowds at the 2004 Geneva show and the air-cooled 1957 original that inspired it. This is especially impressive since this 500 has its engine at the front and must meet modern European impact-protection standards.
The new 500 is also far more than the retro pastiche that the styling might lead you to believe. In many ways, it's more complete than the reengineered Mini. The smart interior is finished to a far higher standard than anyone with previous experience of Fiat's infamously cheap-feeling products would expect, with some high-quality materials and a nice, weighty heft to the way the controls operate and even how the doors shut. Fiat also takes a leaf out of BMW's playbook, letting buyers specify their cars with dozens of trim, color and graphics combinations, and range-topping versions will include climate control, stability program and seven airbags, including a knee bag.
It's not the roomiest ride, but it is one of the most space-efficient. Despite being three inches shorter than the Mini, the 500 offers a roomier interior for passengers and luggage, with comfortable front seats and enough space in the back for big children or small adults.
The 500 rides on a slightly modified version of the acclaimed Fiat Panda's floorpan. Buyers will get to choose among three engines: 1.2-liter (68-hp) and 1.4-liter (98-hp) four-cylinder gasoline engines and a 1.3-liter (74-hp) turbodiesel capable of returning 55 mpg. Future model plans include two more turbocharged gasoline engines: a 1.4-liter Abarth with a rumored 148 hp and an ultrafrugal two-cylinder designed around Europe's new emissions standards. A convertible and a miniature Giardiniera station wagon will follow.
The baby Fiat doesn't drive with quite the same dynamic assurance as the new Mini, but considering its less sophisticated torsion-bar rear suspension, it gets close. Cornering is keen, and the line can be adjusted tidily by easing the gas pedal in finest "hot-hatch" tradition, the only real dynamic complaint is the strange-feeling assistance offered by the electric power steering. It's the sort of car to make a driver grin—especially when delivering the sort of thrashing that the basic 1.2-liter engine encourages.
Sale of the 500 in the United States hasn't been officially ruled out as part of a wider Fiat/Alfa Romeo return. If so, expect the Abarth only, just as Mini brings only the Cooper and the Cooper S here. But the return of Fiat to America is fairly unlikely. Trust us, that's a real shame.
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