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?

That's some traffic jam. (Fiat)

Joel Karie was returning from a trip to Maryland on Thursday, having left that morning to make rehearsals at the Minskoff Theater, where he is a singer in The Lion King. He had just pulled over on 10th Avenue and 44th Street to hop out so his partner, Derek, could take the wheel. Just then, a red-and-black Mini Cooper pulled up behind them, and an older gentleman with a salt-and-pepper mustache got out.

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“He wanted to know if I actually liked it,” Mr. Karie told The Observer. “People seem to have a very positive reaction, but then they want to know if we enjoy the car as much as they seem to.” It was the same reaction Mr. Karie has gotten not only driving around the five boroughs for the past two months, but also on the streets of West Baltimore and at a Delaware rest stop. “It’s kind of ridiculous” how much attention the car draws, Mr. Karie said.

He is the proud owner of a brand new Fiat 500, one of only a few hundred in the metro area. He opted for the 500 the sport model, because it came in the color he was looking for, Tropicalia Yellow. “It cost a few thousand dollars more, but that’s what I like about the Fiat,” Mr. Karie said. “I didn’t get a small car because I couldn’t afford a better car. Really, really both of us wanted to buy an American car. However, when you go under $20,000 in an American car, it feels like you get what you pay for. I don’t get that pop I get with the Fiat. You can buy the baseline 500 and it doesn’t feel like the baseline.”

Mr. Karie is one of a growing number of New Yorkers making this very calculation, buying what the auto industry refers to as A-type or “city cars,” but what The Observer prefers to think of as clown cars. The Smart Car has been tooling around our streets in almost laughably limited numbers since 2006, its two seats reminiscent of latter-day Phaeton buggy. The following year, another European import arrived, BMW’s re-engineered Mini, and it has colonized every corner from the broad avenues of midtown to the brownstone streets of Brooklyn.

Now, the Cinquecento, as it is fondly called, has been popping up all over the city, part nostalgic coincidence, part cutting-edge Euro-cool, all concerted marketing push.

“The whole thing started in New York,” said Ariel Gavilan, head of communications for Fiat North America. “When they started to research the car, one of the places they did their research was in New York, even before they ever knew it would be for sale here. New York is a cultural hub, a megacity. It is the epiphany—the pinnacle of a modern city. It is a global icon. Like the Fiat.”

Why the Fiat 500 Is Perfect for America: ‘It’s the Obama Car!’

The new 500 Cabrio convertible was first unveiled at the Javits Center in April, at the annual New York International Auto Show, and not at the typical conventions of Geneva or Detroit. The first North American media availability was here—O.K., so is every media availability—but so too was a public meet-and-greet in Times Square two weeks ago, a public art installation of full-size fiberglass 500’s and giant pots for pear trees (It’s green!), and, on Sept. 8, Fiat will debut its Gucci-branded 500 on the opening night of Fashion Week. A major media campaign is underway, reaching TV, radio, billboards and—this being an Italian car—the cinema.

Nationwide, Mini sold 28,273 cars between March and July of this year, compared to 7,982 Fiats. The companies do not break out sales figures by city, but it does bare mentioning that the Mini is available in far more. The Mini is also having its best year ever, up 37 percent since the period in 2010.

Still, in a city with “New” in its name, where having the latest designer bag or rarest cut of heritage beef is a critical status symbol, the Mini’s popularity may be stalling. “The Cooper’s been the ‘it’ car for too long,” Jalopnik editor Ray Wert wrote in an email. “It’s time to see a shift for folks who are fashion-conscious, and this car’s got all that and a bag of artisanal chips.” In his review of the car, Mr. Wert declared, “The Fiat 500C is neither fast nor sporty. But how can you not have a blast driving a convertible this cute?”

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