I’ve been desperate to rant about this topic for some time. I was reminded of it thanks to a strange model by Fiat. Just about a month ago, the company introduced a limited-edition variant of its cute little hatchback – the 500 – in the UK. I’m assuming many of you are ardent fans of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond – of Top Gear fame – and watch their videos regularly. In the latest episode (before the fracas!), the three gents talk about the very same 500 that I’ve written about here. Sadly, this column comes out after their video aired – and so I will undoubtedly stand at the receiving end of criticism that I’ve lifted the idea off their show. I haven’t, but that’s not the point here.
The limited-edition machine in question has been developed in partnership with Ron Arad – an ‘Israeli-born, London-based industrial designer, architect and artist.’ Only 200 units of this model will be made, especially for the UK. What Fiat did was paint a Fiat 500 on a Fiat 500 – basically the original 500 on the latest 500. That makes a fine display of how things have gone a bit wrong. Also, the 200 odd people who would be willing to pay money for it may be suffering from a personality disorder yet to be discovered.
The Fiat 500 was a fantastically simple, magnificently utilitarian and desirably cute looking thing back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. When Fiat decided to bring back the small-wonder on its 50th anniversary, it took the global media by storm. It was still reasonably small, and remarkably had the old-world charm intact – but, crucially, it was still as Mickey-Mouse cute as the old one was. Now, the 500 brand-tag has grown beyond senseless. It’s much the same for another equally iconic brand – Mini. Both Fiat and Mini have gone on to contaminate the purity of 500 and Cooper respectively, with much larger cars that flaunt the same tags.
Doing cars that have great physical similarity, but not the soul of the cult cars – to chase financial numbers – is the automotive equivalent of prostitution. It’s really quite wrong. There are 5-door hatchback versions and crossovers body-types of both. What makes me furious is the fact that, when you have the capability to do such body-types, why not do a new design as well? Doing so will keep the sanctity of the cult model intact – it’ll allow them to retain their hard-earned ‘halo.’
I understand that the crossover segment is becoming all the rage, and every manufacturer is keen to get in on it. For reference, the 500X is a Renault Duster-sized crossover that makes for a tantalizing option for the Indian market too. And boy does Fiat needs a car in this segment to be able to revive itself here. If it can deliver a quality product in this space, there might still be some hope for the company. Of course it’ll have to up its ante in the after-sales department, but that’s an altogether different talk-point. The sad bit is that Fiat won’t be able to offer the 500X at an attractive price point in India – the 500 hatch itself was in the 15-lakh-plus territory. As well it should be – the 500 nameplate itself is worth a great premium, and brand dilution would be the worst thing imaginable.
That leaves me with a little food for thought. If Fiat, magically, manages to get the design of a Duster rival, or the upcoming Hyundai iX25 crossover, sorted, it has the right engines (especially the 1.3-litre diesel unit that can be tuned to almost 105bhp without much trouble) to make the product click.
Anyway, back to the core point – Mini, if we could just stick to the purity that the brand represents and leave the mass segments to BMW perhaps? And Fiat, make a ground-up crossover and save the soul of 500!