For one DTW reporter, there was only one star of the 2019 Geneva International Motor Show. We take stock of Fiat’s Concept Centoventi.
Still in mild shock at the most dramatic ECotY announcement in years, my Geneva companions and I took our customary evening promenade round the halls of Palexpo. The FCA stand promised little. We knew they had no new cars, but at least they turned up, unlike some, and Alfa and Fiat had heavily concealed concept cars to show the following morning.
Later in the evening we talked of what is to become of Fiat. Three of us, we have all had various Fiats in our lives and enjoyed the experience. Now the company seemed to be ever more marginalised in the increasingly Jeep-centric world of FCA in the Manley Era.
The FCA Press Conference was therefore a must-see. New introductions were thin on the ground. Alfa Romeo had the Tonale SUV concept, but no mention was made of the GTV. Jeep showed petrol-hybrid Renegades and Compasses, but they will not be available until the end of the year.
Fiat likewise had no new car to sell, but they were able to present – with considerable pride – a concept design to mark the 120th anniversary of the firm’s establishment.
If I was to describe Concept Centoventi as a compact battery electric city car designed to meet the needs and expectations of urban millennials, it would probably start a stampede rushing to have a closer look at the Tonale. I will just say that Centoventi is far more inspiring than I expected and is worthy of close examination.
Olivier Francois, Fiat’s brand chief, is an adept explainer. He has taken an active interest in “Project CC4” over its four year gestation, and his enthusiasm for it is manifestly clear.
The shape is not particularly innovative – there are only so many ways to ornament a box. There are elements of the Kia Soul and VW Up! in the design. There is also rigid conformity to the rules of The Concept Car Charter; enormous wheels, concealed doorhandles, absence of the B-pillar, flush glazing. Surely none of these will make it to a real-world development of the design, and the received wisdom is that the project has not yet been cleared for production.
User customisation is at the heart of the design – detachable wings functioning as body wraps, a roof opening where the base polycarbonate panel can be replaced by a canvas sunroof, a solar panel, or a roof box, and user upgradeable seats feature.
Two instrument clusters are offered. The minimal one can accommodate a smartphone or tablet, while the full width ‘Lingotto’ option is a veritable desktop, proportioned to resemble the eponymous Turin factory’s rooftop test track.
Some of these features are unquestionably practical, and enhance the value of the car as a functional object adaptable to changing user needs.
Others, like the display panel on the tailgate, which can be monetised for advertising space, or the ability to create factory designed accessories on a 3D printer, are perhaps just whimsical millennial fodder. (Re-reading this and realising this strange tribe are beyond my understanding, it is equally likely that these two features could be the key to the future production Centoventi’s earth-shattering success)
Almost every carmaker has offered user customisation in some form: the 1969 Ford Capri, the Smart, the MINI, the Kolin PSA cars, the Lancia Ypsilon and Musa. Nobody has ever made it so user-accessible – it looks like an altruistic gift rather than a money-spinner exploiting a captive customer base.
Beneath the trinketry there’s some solid and original engineering. What won me over is mostly below the floor. In base specification, a single battery module is installed transversely, fixed to a sliding rail system. Three further modules, each adding 100km range, can be installed underfloor in a dealer-fit process which takes less than an hour. That gives 400km so far. The final 100km comes from a further module in a recess under the front seats.
Removal and refitting can be carried out by the user, and the module can be charged within the user’s home or workplace.
It is all very clever, and answers a number of reservations about the practicality of battery electric vehicles.
So far, so good, but there are more questions than answers.
Is Concept Centoventi the new Panda?
I asked around. The best answer I got was “perhaps”. The dashboard mock-up perhaps gives a hint.
Could the next generation Panda range be all electric? I doubt it. Francois talks of the production Centoventi being the cheapest battery electric vehicle on the market in base, single-battery, 100km range form. However the price being talked of is around €18,000 for this entry-level model. That would buy two petrol-engined Pandas, and I can’t imagine Fiat pricing themselves out of the Panda’s long held best-seller slot in their domestic market. In any case the FireFly engines are now on stream at Bielsko-Biała, and FCA will want to make the most of that investment.
Moving forward 24 hours, Wednesday morning was the second, more relaxed media day. I didn’t take long to re-acquaint myself with Centoventi. Overnight a new thought had occurred. What would Pio Manzù have made of the car?
Manzù was a precocious and prolific industrial designer whose best known work was the Fiat 127. The fiftieth anniversary of his untimely death, in a collision at a crossroads at Brandizzo, north west of Turin is only two months away.
Born in March 1939, he had the talent to become one of the glorious group of design maestri born between 1937 and 1939. However, while Giugiaro, Gandini, and Fioravanti were shaping their supercars, Manzù was publishing philosophical discourses on the future of cars as objects of utility, and personal transport becoming part of an integrated system of human mobility. The Centovienti echoes the spirit of his 1964 Autonova FAM and 1968 Fiat 850 City Taxi.
There are other clearer hints that there are Manzù fans in the Centro Stile to this day – those accessories, and the presentation graphics. Even the colour schemes – orange, silver, grey are often seen in Manzù’s concepts.
Those ridiculously huge wheels apart, I think that Pio would have found much to like in the new Fiat concept. “L’auto come sistema”, democratic, shareable and integrated into the urban network may have finally arrived.
The production future of Centoventi is by no means assured. It has to fight for its share of FCA’s hard-stretched R&D budget. In its favour are not just its character and technological innovations, but the potential to reduce the group’s CO2 emissions and thereby avoid regulatory fines.
That green light for production could be Fiat’s best possible 120th birthday present – just go for it, Mike…