Retro delights: Fiat 500

The Fiat 500 is back – retrospective but with an eye on the future. Sean O'Grady reports

When it comes to cars, retro is risky. In the right hands, it can lead to critical acclaim and – most critically of all – a drive into profit. BMW's New Mini falls cheerily into this category, as does the reborn Ford Mustang and the current Bentley Continental GT. Do retro cack-handedly, though, and you end up with a slow selling curiosity. Volkswagen's New Beetle, which was just a Golf in a more costly suit, enjoyed a brief spike of interest before flopping, as did the Jaguar S-type and the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which was just vaguely old-fashioned without recalling any particular classic. Saddest of all was the elegant Rover 75 – retro where it was least needed in a company already lumbered with an "old man's car" reputation.

The signs are that the new Fiat 500, echoing the design cues of the original, much loved (and much smaller) 1957 model will be another chapter in the story of Fiat's return from the brink. True, this car isn't as fresh a design as, say, the New Mini. Under that cutesy bodywork lies a Fiat Panda, made in Poland and a fine hatchback, but with a 500 you get less space and less practicality for more money.

However, the 500 is a much more accomplished fashion item than the new Beetle could ever hope to be, thanks to its gorgeously detailed interior. In this it has much more in common with the New Mini, which admittedly has little to do with the 1959 original. BMW's version didn't redefine the small car in the way that Sir Alec Issigonis's invention did.

What it was, and is, is a cheap, front-wheel drive, smallish BMW, with all the quality and reliability that marque inspires, while still being unmistakably British and Mini-ish. The New Mini's extensive options list offers BMW generous scope for inflating margins; the same should happen with the 500, which will rival the Mini for customising possibilities. But will it be as well made as a Mini, or its dealers as solicitous as a New Beetle's? Will it be cheap enough to tempt buyers? These are also traditional factors for a car's fortunes...

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