FIAT 500: Old vs. New

In the past six months, I’ve enjoyed some wheel time with both the new (modern) FIAT 500, an Abarth model, as well as a 1972 FIAT Cinquecento on vacation in Tuscany last spring. Although technological advancements differentiate the two models, I’ve had exciting experiences with both cars that I now associate with this storied nameplate.

On paper, a lot has changed for the Cinquecento from its inception in 1957. The wheelbase grew from 72 inches to 90 inches, its length increased from 117 inches to 140 inches and the width grew by a foot from 52 inches to 64 inches. There was a drastic change in the engine bay, too, moving from an air-cooled, rear-engined format — similar to other "people’s cars" of the time such as the Volkswagen Beetle or the Citroen 2CV — to a modern, liquid-cooled front-engined, front-wheel drive format. Other technological advancements such as disc brakes, power steering and even air conditioning add to the refinement and drivability of the contemporary Cinquecento.

For one day last spring, I had the pleasure of driving a well-maintained classic 1972 FIAT through the twists and turns of the Italian countryside. While Italy is known for building fast, exotic cars, the 499-cc 2-cylinder engine in the original Cinquecento is the opposite of quick. However, placed in the rear of the car’s tiny chassis, and combined with the drum brakes and lack of power steering, the car felt pretty quick.

The quickness I describe from the classic FIAT comes not from power figures, but instead from the feeling of piloting an antique vehicle on today’s roads. Every modern feature that the FIAT lacks lowers the speed at which fear sets in. I experienced this feeling with the car on the steep mountain passes near the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. Driving uphill with the engine roaring to redline, I needed every ounce of arm strength to keep the car on course, and operating the brakes downhill, even when paired with engine braking, I found myself stepping on the brakes harder than I was accustomed to with surprisingly little effect. I pushed the little FIAT to the limits of my comfort zone — and while I likely did not exceed 45 miles per hour at any point, I feared that any quicker could prove catastrophic.

I also recently completed some laps at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in an Abarth 500. It had just started to rain on the track, so the road surface was slick. I was at Skip Barber Driving School’s one-day course, coming to an Abarth-sponsored press event with zero racing experience. It was toward the end of the day, and I was finally feeling confident on the track. At higher speeds on the course, I felt the limits of the Abarth-tuned noisemaker’s egg-shaped chassis and tiny wheelbase. As I made my final laps, I reconnected my experience with the one I had in the vintage Cinquecento on the mountainous roads of Tuscany.

Despite the 46-year-old age difference between the two vehicles, my experiences were enjoyable, and I was rewarded for my efforts in both cars. On the Italian countryside, I enjoyed the simplicity of the Cinquecento, and appreciated its historic importance for offering four-wheeled transportation to post-war Italy. While the vintage FIAT delivered mechanical and utilitarian simplicity, its exciting ride stemmed from the unsafe nature of operating a Vespa that had evolved to have four wheels. With the 2019 FIAT 500 Abarth, I was excited by the ease of operation, the great sound and the understandable limits, making it a great introductory car for the track. Having evolved from the most basic form of four wheeled transportation, the modern Abarth still retains its stripped-down economical roots — barely squeaking by today’s vehicle size expectations, yet still offering a playful and visceral driving experience.

While used prices for both the modern and vintage FIAT 500 hover in the same territory, daily-driving a classic Cinquecento would be a difficult endeavor on today’s SUV-clogged roads. If I were to own the classic version, it would likely see under 1,000 miles per year, only be driven on weekends when the weather is warm, and never on a highway. For that reason, I award the edge to the 2019 FIAT 500 Abarth. FCA should pat itself on the back for successfully producing a vehicle that embodies the original — not just in style, but in spirit, as well.

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