The Little Car That Could: Is the Fiat 500 New York’s New ‘It’ Car?

The Red-Sauce Rollerskate takes Times Square; Can Fiat's smallest offering overtake the Mini market?

The 500C at the New York Auto Show. (Getty)

New York has never been much of a driving town. Even after Robert Moses plowed a few dozen freeways across the cityscape, car owners have never been a majority. Yet car ownership has risen slightly over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census, from 44.3 to 46 percent, after seeing virtually no growth the decade before that. As gentrification brings more suburbanites to the city, they are bringing their cars with them. And while New York has never been much for car culture, it loves all things continental. As the city trades in its gritty streets for cute and cuddly byways, there is ever more room for cars.

“It’s a great rendition of the Cinquecento of the past,” said automotive designer Jonathan Kim. “I don’t think it’s the same as the original, because that is a different animal. That was a go-cart on wheels. The new one is like an adult version of that. It’s smart and well-tailored.”

Mr. Kim actually drives a white Smart car, from which The Observer caught him unloading groceries on Wythe Street on Friday night. He is an inveterate gearhead who spent seven years designing cars for Ford, including the new Mustang—the interiors are all his—and a Bronco concept car that eventually became the new Land Rover LR3. After a stint in Europe, he returned to New York around the time the Smart Car was being launched Stateside and fell in love, especially for its park-anywhere capabilities. “Everyone is jealous,” he said. “Everyone.”

He does appreciate the appeal of the 500 for New Yorkers who might not be able to commit to the Smart Car. “The position in the Cinquecento is high, just like in the Smart, which is good, especially in urban situations. You can always see a little bit over the traffic, which is what we call in the industry the H-point,” Mr. Kim said. like the design-centricness of it, it’s quite nice. There’s a nice color palette and just an array of choices to fit your modern tastes. They’ve got a great marketing component, they’ve really targeted it to the modern, urban 20- and 30-something. And they avoided the pitfall of the Volkswagen Beetle. They made the Beetle a little too retro-cutesy, whereas the Cincquacento is the kind of the modern interpretation of the older version. So you don’t get the people who grew up with the Cincquacento; you get people who don’t even know what the Cincquacento is.”

There is also the advantage of the New York’s ethnic heritage. “The Mini is more sporty, it’s a bit bigger than the Cinquecento. When you drive a Mini, it’s good; when you drive a Cinquecento, it’s passion” said Claudio Coronas, proprietor of DOC Wine Bar and DOC Wine Shop on the north and south sides, respectively, of Williamsburg. “I’m Italian. It’s my first car, I learn to drive with a Cinquecento when I was 15 years old. For me, maybe it’s something that’s more than a car. It reminds me of when I was younger.” The native Italian bought his car through a limited-edition auction last year. It is number 487 out of 500, and it was delivered in May. He laments its inability to fit more than one stroller in back, as the two Minis he owned before could, but in addition to his BMW, he said it was the perfect city car, and one he drives far more often.

“Especially in Brooklyn, they don’t like the big S.U.V.,” Mr. Coronas said. “It’s all old Volvos and Suburus, the electric, hybrid. The first thing everybody asks is how many miles on a gallon. The first thing—‘Cool, cool. How many miles?’” The answer is 30 in the city, 38 on the highway. That is in five-speed manual. Opt for the more American automatic transmission and it’s 27 miles per gallon in the city, 30 on the highway.

“The Fiat 500 is absolutely poised to become the new ‘it’ car for BroBos,” Jalopnik’s Mr. Wert said. “It’s cheaper than the Mini, smaller than the Mini, and, while still looking retro, doesn’t look at all like the Cooper.”

Yet the bigger challenge may be converting those who are not automotive or Italian devotees—one Fiat is having no trouble with. “The aesthetic is very sensible,” Mr. Karie said. “I hate driving, I’m not a huge fan of it, so anything that enhances that experience is good. I feel very comfortable in this car. It’s like an Apple computer. Aesthetics and design can make something boring fun. It’s not just how it looks but how it works. It’s nice to know someone has put some real thought and care into the product, instead of just stamping it out on an assembly line. If I’m caught in traffic, I want to feel good being stuck.”

The Little Car That Could: Is the Fiat 500 New York’s New ‘It’ Car?