Japan makes plenty of fun little cars, but it is far from having a monopoly on the aesthetic.

European makers almost “out-cute” the competition with a number of pintsize people-movers such as the tiny Smart Fortwo and the revived Mini Cooper. Now comes the re-arrival of perhaps the most important small car since the Mini; Fiat has dusted off one of Italy’s most popular cultural icons in the form of the new Fiat 500.

You may recognize the car, nicknamed Bambina, from its many appearances in European films such as Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and Luc Besson’s “Le Grand Bleu” (1988), or, closer to home, the Japanese animation “Lupin the 3rd” and a slew of video games such as “Gran Turismo 2.” Many people will probably have seen a Fiat 500 named Luigi in the Disney/Pixar animated film “Cars” (2006).

Similar to the relaunched Mini Cooper, an icon of British culture now owned by German company BMW, the Fiat 500 has a loyal fan base. And its reintroduction has been so successful that it has been named 2008 European Car of the Year.

I drove a Fiat 500 1.2 8V Lounge for two days in downtown Tokyo recently. It might not be a total head-turner like so many of Europe’s famous sportscars, but its unique heritage earns it plenty of looks — most of them smiles. The car proved to be a great fit for Japan’s narrow streets, responding well to city driving and feeling both safe and comfortable. The decidedly retro little darling was also fun to drive.

The Fiat 500 was launched in 1957 in Turin, northwest Italy, and quickly became the car of choice for millions of Italians looking for reliability and affordability. Its popularity brought to an end an era of postwar hardship for Fiat. And it seemed to capture a similar spirit in the Italian people: a relaxed and worry-free way of life among car-buyers enamored with the cute little vehicle.

With its similar contours and styling, the Fiat 500’s design deliberately taps the nostalgia surrounding the original. If you believe Fiat’s spiel, the compact has “a pure, round shape that inspires love, and a smiley face that communicates joy and hope.”

This “small car with a big heart,” as they call it, has many new and unique aspects to it as well.

Fiat may have been a bit ambitious, but in a slogan echoing that of the Volkswagon Beetle, the company declared its aim to make “the car of the people, by the people.” To that end, it sought the help of 3 million international car enthusiasts who submitted ideas through the www.500wantsyou.com Web site. The result is a vehicle packed with innovations targeted at environmentally sensitive consumers.

The Fiat 500’s main green feature is an “eco-friendly” engine that makes it the cleanest car in its segment. The 1.2-liter 8-valve gasoline version delivers 69bhp, returns an impressive 20km per liter and emits 119g/km of CO2 There is also a more powerful but still ultrafrugal 75bhp 1.3-liter Multijet turbodiesel engine and a 100bhp 1.4-liter 16-valve gasoline one. Each engine meets the strict Euro5 emission standards that go into effect in 2009.

“It has been the first time in automobile history that a small car such as the 500 reaches such results,” said Andrea Carattoli, Marketing Product Manager for Brand Fiat, eager to point out that the Fiat 500, launched in March 2007, met these restrictions two years before they were required.

“Not just gas emissions, but also gasoline consumption is within the lowest in its category. Less consumption (plus) less emission equals (a) cleaner car.”

The basic Fiat 500 costs ¥2,220,000 in Japan, and comes equipped with Fiat’s new Dualogic semiautomatic transmission, a robotized system that eliminates the clutch pedal while maintaining the lower weight and fuel consumption of standard manual transmission as compared with fully automatics.

Tiziana Alamprese, Fiat Country Manager, said the aim behind such initiatives is no less than to cut carbon emissions from Fiat’s vehicles to zero by 2020. “We are testing hydrogen, methane power and electric power as alternatives for gasoline,” he said. The Fiat 500, manufactured in one of Fiat’s most advanced factories in Tychy, Poland, is the first step.

The car also has some quirky features: You can customize your Fiat 500 with a number of decal stickers available for the body; and there is the option to choose from among three fragrances for the interior.

To keep the cute and friendly image going, Fiat Japan got well-known contemporary Italian artist Giuliano Ghelli to paint a Fiat 500 1.2 8V Lounge on the theme of “nature.” The car was auctioned by Yahoo Japan, with the proceeds going to the Kids Earth Fund, a nonprofit organization promoting worldwide peace and environmental conservation through children’s art. The winner was to be announced Friday, on the eve of the New Classic Gig in Japan ’08 concert held Saturday and Sunday at Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho, Tokyo.

Apart from being fun to drive and low on fuel consumption, the Fiat 500 is very modern inside, with all the features you would expect, enough room for four people and a decent-size trunk — bigger than I had anticipated in a car measuring just 3.5 meters long. The semiautomatic transmission reminded me of a manual. In semiautomatic mode, gears are engaged by tapping “+” or “-” buttons on the dashboard; you have the fun of driving without the hassle of using the clutch or thinking which gear to be in. Still, it was not as smooth as a fully automatic car. But fear not! There is also an automatic mode, which allows you to choose between normal and economy (economy saves on fuel by keeping the car in a high gear as much as possible).

All in all, the Fiat 500 is a unique, stylish city car with the same power to push emotional buttons in motorists as the Mini Cooper or the Nissan Cube. Add performance and eco-friendly features and you have a lot of good, clean fun.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.


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