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Fiat 500 fan: How do I get one? Add to ...

Hello Jeremy and Michael: I owned a Fiat 500 when I lived in Kenya in the 1960s and have maintained a strong affection for it and developed an equally strong interest in the new model based on reviews I've read in the U.K. automotive press. It is my understanding that the 500 will only be available through a limited number of dealerships. Do you know which Chrysler dealers in this country will be selling the 500? I live in Winnipeg and I am fearful that we will be bypassed? - D'Arcy in Winnipeg

Cato: D'Arcy, you remember Luigi the 500 from the 2006 flick Cars, don't you? The real-life version of Fiat's little darling of a fashion statement is coming to a Winnipeg dealership near you - and 57 other Chrysler/Fiat dealerships in Canada. Early next year at $15,995, to start.

This new one, like the original in 1957, has penny-pinching fuel economy. Here's why this car is so important: Chrysler is hoping the 500 does for the company what the original did for the whole country of Italy. We're talking about sparking a Chrysler image revival, here.

Vaughan: Alright, everybody; get a grip on yourselves. The original Fiat 500 was crude, unsafe and noisy. It was a cheap Italian knock-off of the almighty Volkswagen Beetle, although the Roman version only had an air-cooled two-cylinder engine. If you liked the deplorable East German Trabant, you'll love the old 500, as it also happened to be "cute."

See, that's what Cato fixed on. Let's put aside the myths and ask ourselves if what was once a cheap, unsophisticated, dangerous car deserves a second chance simply because it used to be "cute."

Cato: The latest 500 is cute, also, and it's anything but cheap, unsophisticated and dangerous. And Vaughan, the new 500 is way bigger than its pipsqueak predecessor.

Vaughan: But much smaller than any vehicle Chrysler has sold.

Cato: Sure, but it's the right size for D'Arcy. He has those fond memories of the original 500. So do millions of others. Lots of these potential buyers bonded with Luigi the 500 cartoon and the real car. You wouldn't fathom this, but cute matters, Vaughan.

Vaughan: If you want "cute," then buy a Mini or a cute newcomer like the Ford Fiesta, which offers upscale features and great gas mileage.

Our pal, Rebecca Lindland, a top analyst for IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., says her firm is projecting Fiat 500 North American sales peaking at 40,000 in 2012 and then dropping off to about 35,000 after that. Pathetic. The old Beetle was doing a few hundred thousand a year.

Cato: Negative, negative, negative. Raw sales numbers aren't the whole point here.

Chrysler needs to reinvent its entire image and is saddling much of that marketing effort to the 500. This is a hip, cool, sexy little car. If people start to associate hip, cool and sexy with Chrysler, then who cares about raw sales numbers?

Vaughan: As usual, you're thinking with your heart, not your head. Think about the numbers, Cato. Even the Mini fell short of the numbers Chrysler is aiming at for the 500.

In 2002, when BMW launched Mini in North America, 24,590 Minis were sold in the United States and a couple thousand more in Canada. Sales peaked at about 58,000 in 2008.

And Smart, look at Daimler AG's Smart numbers. Smart peaked in 2008 at 24,622 in the U.S., and fell to 14,592 in 2009.

Cato: I get your point. As our pal Rebecca says, the 500 "is somewhere between the Mini and the Smart. You look at the Smart car and those Mini volumes and you've got to be afraid."

Vaughan: Cato, you've never made more sense. Keep quoting Becky.

Cato: You're overlooking the fact that, like the Mini, the 500 will be not be a one-trick pony.

Fiat plans a convertible and a sporty Abarth version in 2011 and an electric version in 2012. Expect a four-door, high-roof version to arrive in 2013.

Vaughan: And they'll sell a handful of each. Big deal.

They have to battle the boutique-style competitors like Mini and Smart, plus the new, "cute" mass-market choices like the Fiesta and the subcompact segment leaders, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit. The Fiesta has a voice-activated sound system, automatic dimming mirrors and seven airbags.

Cato: Counting airbags? Ridiculous.

I'm thinking about a car that puts a smile on your face. The 500 does that. Here's a car that buyers only as old as your socks can embrace.

Vaughan: Um, Cato, D'Arcy is older than me. So much for your "youth" argument.

Cato: Listen to Rebecca: "The halo effect of this car and the utility of this car will grab younger clientele and early adopters." My case is closed.

Vaughan: You do sound smarter when you quote Becky.



HOW THEY COMPARE



2012 Fiat 500

2011 Mini Cooper Classic

2011 Smart Pure coupe

Wheelbase (mm)

2,301

2,467

1,867

Length (mm)

3,551

3,723

2,695

Width (mm)

1,626

1,683

1,559

Height (mm)

1,491

1,407

1,543

Engine

1.4-litre four-cylinder

1.6-litre four-cylinder

1.0-litre four-cylinder

Output (horsepower/torque)

101/98 lb-ft

121/114 lb-ft

70/68 lb-ft

Drive system

FWD

FWD

FWD

Transmission

five-speed manual

six-speed manual

five-speed autoshift manual

Curb weight (kg)

975

1,150

820

Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

N/A

7.1 city/5.3 highway

5.9 city/4.8 highway

Base price

$15,995

$23,600

$13,990

Source: Car manufacturers

Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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