Commentary: Nuovo Cinquecento non è più in America

Dear Fiat Chrysler Automobiles,

I get it. The little Fiat 500 did not fully work for you in North America. Therefore, you announced the end of production of your popular global vehicle for the 2020 model from your Toluca, Mexico plant.

I’m sorry you had to do that.

The Nuovo Cinquecento was an interesting piece of automotive culture. It's arrival into the European market in 2007 sparked a revival for the brand with its retro design onto a modern platform. Fiat was turning around and creating better vehicles for the markets it served by that time. The 500 was indeed the one layer of the cake that truly made it great.

We all went into the Global Financial Crisis was concerns about gas prices and market volatility. Fiat S.p.A. survived the storm, while Chrysler LLC began to nearly circle the drain. Your then-CEO, the late Sergio Marchionne, came up with an idea to save Chrysler by leveraging Fiat to do so.

That leverage was more than just a cash and stock transaction. The Italian side found a way to re-enter the market you once abandoned in 1982. Granted, an independent importer continued to bring the X1/9 and 2000 Spider stateside under the carrozzerias they were designed by well into the 1980s.

To re-enter the USA market, you brought the tooling for the 500 to Chrysler’s Toluca plant, rather than importing them from Poland. That began in 2011, as the first Fiat dealers were being appointed.

The diminutive Nuovo Cinquecento arrived at your new dealers. It was all about lifestyle and a modern take on an Italian classic. We were finally getting what everyone in Europe was raving about.

Needless to say, they were pretty small for four American people. I’m sure there was a way to fit everyone inside of a Fiat 500. But, for those of us behind the driver’s seat, it was absolutely fun. Cargo space was small, but we found ways to pack it in with groceries, luggage, and such.

Soon, you added the 500C with the sliding roof above the cabin. Not a complete convertible, but safer because of the side roof shells left in place. The only problem was the rearward vision. You simply could not see anything directly behind the driver when the roof is folded down.

2013 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio

The next step was to reintroduce the Abarth model. The muscular 1.4-liter Multiair turbocharged engine was designed for thrills only. For those who can row their own gears, this was magnificent. The Aisin automatic came along, matching revs perfectly to gear changes. But, those seats were very uncomfortable for most American bodies. Still, we love an exciting little hot hatch – only a few did.

To get on board the EV craze, you brought out the 500e. The same fun little 500 hatchback with a full battery-electric driveline. We loved the zany white trim with those crazy colors. What we hoped for was more range. In the face of the proliferation of the Tesla brand, 87 miles was not going to cut it for most of us.

In all, the Fiat 500 and its variants were great for the city. The Nuovo Cinquecento was an answer to then-high fuel prices and the call for smaller cars for commuters. It was not as practical as, say, a Ford Fiesta, a Nissan Versa, or a Toyota Yaris. If anything endeared American consumers to the Fiat 500, it was cuteness and its Italian charm.

But, the early-to-mid 2010s were good to us. Fuel costs were low, the economy was improving, and car buyers abandoned sedans, hatchbacks, and wagons for crossovers and SUVs.

That gave you permission to follow this trend. What did you do? Introduce the 500-inspired 500L tall wagon to our shores. If we looked deeper, we would find that they were built in the same plant run by the same people that brought us the Yugo in 1986. Not to disrespect the Serbs, but Consumer Reports were not amused when it came to the quality and reliability of the 500L.

The next step was to take a platform originally created for the Panda 4X4 and apply it to two vehicles. Once was the butch-looking Jeep Renegade, which became a popular product worldwide. Then, you developed a small crossover for those who did not need to go off the highway. It was shaped like an overgrown 500 hatchback. It was christened the 500X.

The Italian-made 500X may have kept Fiat going in the USA. But let’s be honest, it was too cute for customers looking for Jeeps and other CUV/SUVs.

The whole retro design theme continued as you connected with Mazda to develop a modern 124 Spider. While there were new front and rear fascias and the plunking of your turbocharged Multiair engine where Mazda's Skyactiv engine would reside, it was no wonder we would call your return to roadster fame the "Fiata."

Luckily, the announcement today was not as bad as the naysayers and tin-hat automotive opinion-makers were espousing. Fiat will remain in North America – but without your global small car.

This move also opened up space at your Toluca plant. I hope you are replacing that capacity with something good.

FCA What's New 2015 009

I had some readers express their sadness and concern over this decision to end Fiat 500 production in Mexico and its sale in North America. Believe me, I read the sales figures and they were not up to snuff. I know Fiat dealers in the USA are hurting, so we encourage some sort of strategy to keep this brand – a huge part of your corporate name – selling in this country.

We know there is plenty of inventory of remaining 2019 Fiat 500s left to sell. I hope consumers will be able to grab one soon.

We will miss this car. I know how much it meant for you to bring it to our market and reinvigorate your brand here. What ever it takes to keep the brand afloat, please do so. You still have owners to service, warranties to honor, and cars in inventory to sell.

I hope this finds you well in Auburn Hills and Turin.


Randy Stern and the Victory & Reseda Readership

All photos by Randy Stern

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