Geneva 2019 Reflections – Pio Would Have Loved This

For one DTW reporter, there was only one star of the 2019 Geneva International Motor Show. We take stock of Fiat’s Concept Centoventi.

Image: fiatpress.com

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.

Image: R Parazitas

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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. Image: R Parazitas

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.

The “4U” program: 4 roofs, 4 bumpers, 4 wheel covers and 4 external wrappings. Image: fiatpress.com

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

The Lingotto instrument cluster. Image; fiatpress.com

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.

Where that extra 100km lives. Image: R Parazitas

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.

Image: R Parazitas

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.

Pio Manzù. Image: Edita

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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…

Image: R Parazitas

Link to 2019 Fiat GIMS Press Conference:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC1hDLgOubA

17 thoughts on “Geneva 2019 Reflections – Pio Would Have Loved This”

  1. If Fiat wants to sell this car there might not be an alternative to it being electric.
    There most probably will be no successor to the Up! or Twingo in ICE form because the cost for emission control stuff meeting impending regulations is prohibitive for vehicles in this class.
    Therefore customers won’t be able to buy new ICE powered cars in this category anymore very soon which just about might give Fiat a tiny chance for a small BEV.

  2. Congratulations Robertas, your description and analysis made this concept far more interesting and attractive to me than any other synopsis has managed thus far. Let’s hope something very similar is productionised and thus arrives with much of the dashboard and interior layout intact.

    1. Absolutely agree. Fiat desperately needs a new identity led by distinctive products to make it relevant again. It simply can’t survive long-term with the small and incoherent range of models it currently offers in Europe. The retro 500 range can’t go on forever, likewise the Panda. The Tipo, like its recent predecessors, is as good as invisible and barely registers with most potential buyers of C-segment hatchbacks. Other than those, Fiat only offers a couple of van-based MPVs (about as fashionable as acne) and, bizarrely, a crew cab pick-up truck. The Centoventi just might provide the template for a new range of rational and useful vehicles to give Fiat a new USP.

    2. Yes – thank you for covering this; I was hoping that someone would. There are some others which caught my eye – the Arcfox and Tata stands, in particular, as well as Škoda. I thought the Piëch exhibit was a bit sad.

  3. Hi everybody. This is my first comment here at DTW! I agree with Dave, but for a different reason. In a couple of years we’ll see a big increase in restrictions for the use and parking of ICE personal car in European cities, on top of what is already there. So, a city car that is not electric will soon make little sense.

  4. Two weekends ago the rental car lottery blessed me with a 2018 Fiat Panda. In white and with beautifully unpretentious hub cabs. It didn’t take long to fall in love. The car is so utilitarian, so honest, so simple. Despite it not being the TwinAir (that I know is much appreciated around here) driving it was a pure delight, slamming through the gears with the dash mounted gear shifter, circling around round-abouts, all while only consuming little more than a few drops of fuel every now and then – I have rarely enjoyed motoring with a cleaner conscious. And no, there can be no doubt – the Panda is the better of the two small Fiats.

    Seeing pictures of the 120 it immediately appeared to me as the answer to the dreams that formed in my head while intoxicated with Panda fumes. Well, the similarity in shape with the Panda is obvious, I suppose, and all the better for it. I feel this one of the last honest car shapes (except in Japan) that is actually bigger on the inside than the outside would suggest. I would chose this (hoping for it to carry over this deliciously lively taste from concept to production) over the Honda Urban EV (not to mention an electrified Peugeot 208, or an electric Smart Forfour) without hesitation. Though in my Panda dream, I think it had a TwinAir engine…

  5. The 120 is a tidy bit of industrial design, possibly Fiat´s best concept in 19 years. They didn´t build the EcoBasic though. The slide out battery is rather smart – it is like being able to take your petrol tank with you when you leave the car. Will the packs have two little wheels so as to enable their transportation?
    I admire the IP – it´s rather pleasing even if it is a trope I have seen elsewhere. It´s what is not there that is so good: no huge bulky, overshaped lump of complication. And the door skins are smart as well. Will it ever see the photons of the day? It ought to. Fiat can´t go making the stuff it is making.
    Daniel – you have a fantastic memory; imagine remembering the current Tipo. I don´t think anyway one remembers that car. I´ve seen one in Denmark since it came out. One! Danes like cheap cars and evidently that´s not enough to sell that car here.

    1. The Centoventi is everything I want a Fiat to be, but daren’t wish for anymore. This wonderful surprise by itself made the trek to Geneva and back worthwhile.

      This and the Alfa (which was created over barely four months!) also prove that FCA’s Turinese Centro Stile hasn’t lost all of its creative talent. Let’s hope the new management is more appreciative of this fact than their predecessors and once again exploits the strengths that have always been at the core of the Italian automobile.

  6. There was a Tipo Sport on the Geneva stand which seems to be a new addition. ‘Sport’ signifies various black plastic body add-ons and a gloomy black interior with bolstered seats, like a sporty hatchback from 35 years ago.

    https://www.fiat.com/tipo/tipo-sport

    The engines offered seemed to be the same as offered in the usual rental-yard fodder. I don’t think we’ll ever see a Tipo Abarth.

    Sergio all but disowned the Tipo at the 2018 Geneva show, but over 102,000 were registered in Europe last year (2.1 White Hens, to apply the standard metric). On top of that are sales in Turkey, Mexico (as the Dodge Neon), and various African and South and Central American territories.

    In my meditation on the Centoventi, I did think of the EcoBasic, which begat the Fiat ‘Mini’ platform and the Panda 169. Likewise Trepiuno emerged as the modern 500, so there is hope.

    I look upon the Centoventi’s doors and think how well they would suit a 2023 Lancia Appia Elettra. On the FCA stand the Lancia badge was there among the logos of the various FCA brands and subsidiaries. The White Hen may be in decline, but it still managed to outsell Lexus in Europe by 2439 cars.

    1. Actually the current gen Fiat Tipo is quite a common sight on the streets of Berlin. Mostly in limousine shape it seems, though this might be my perception playing a trick on me.

      I find the Fiat Tipo to be a good enough looking compact car – though rather void of any distinctive, let alone Fiat features. What really surprised me though (and what is likely the explanation for its popularity) was to see that it retails for Dacia prices! Yes, sort the offers of your average car dealer (EU imports, day registrations, that sort of thing) by price and you’ll find: Dacia, Tipo, Tipo, Dacia, Tipo, Tipo – long before you start getting into Skoda Citigo / Toyota Aygo territory… So I discovered when I was waiting for my car to be repaired at my local mechanic.

      In fact, at this dealer, an almost new Tipo limousine will set you back just about 10 thousand Euros, equipped with heated seats, air conditioning and electric windows. The estate and hatch start at a little over 11 thousand Euros. I must say, I rather find that a lot of car for not very much money. I would chose it over a Dacia, if I was in the market for a new car around 10 thousand Euros.

  7. The ICE-powered cars are nigh-on impossible to dismiss in the A-segment. There are numerous rural areas where there
    is a predominantly scarce electricity charging network
    penetration, and where conventional A-segm.cars
    are a vital, politically sensitive socioeconomic element.

    There must be a vain, metropolitan-centric pattern of self-dellusional thinking, behind each statement that so leisurely, nonchalantly and blatantly dismisses fossil-fueled small cars.

    Such a radical change just won’t happen anytime soon in Europe,
    at least not in the next 12-15 years. Not to mention elsewhere.

    Now then, as the majority of urban-clients’ A-segm. sales will indeed transfer to BEV (that much seems realistic), it seems
    that the posh, brand-carrying models will be “technologically advanced” BEV small(ish) cars (EV is, essentially, ~1910 tech, let’s face it…). Whereas the inevitable ICE small cars are likely to become vulgarly decontented and primitivized, and thus probably sold
    as sub-branded, ‘characterful’, agriculturally engineered motors.

    The only untoward and relatively unpredictable factor in these growingly predictable development trends, is Cit’s recently unveiled
    Ami-XYZ concept, that announces a dedicated, Ami-branded
    line of vehicles.
    It kind of conveys a hint that the BEV is most likely to bloom in those social circles who couldn’t care less about the conventional benefits of motoring, and just look for a basic urban mobility solution that won’t be seasonally restricted (service-based mobility as opposed
    to ownership-based).
    If this materializes, then Citroen could be aiming at an approach opposed to the one described above: sell ultra-simple EVs as an “essential, friendly (Amiable) mobility” sub-brand, and retain
    the principal brand / DS for sophisticated, ownership-based-mobility vehicles.

    Which of these two schools of thinking shall prevail is, in the case
    of European market, highly dependant also on the regulatory
    side of things.

    The demotion of Cactus (as one of the last soberly sized, physically proper cars on offer…) into a price-positioning ‘exile’, is another telling and depressing factor, that must be taken into account.
    It is almost as if they don’t want the clients to have even the crumbles of what the car, as a notion, essentially was.

    Eg., Clio V’s overtly advertised overarching scope-of-category
    is almost a proof that the market is already trained to overcome
    the segment thinking. Instead, the clients (eg.Clio drivers) embrace a certain greed for competence. This, in turn, is a huge technological
    driving force, and things might actually turn out far better than
    we now foresee.

    It is only now, after the GIMS has shown some ‘signals’, of which the Fiat 120 is one of the significant ones, that things are becoming disconcertingly unpredictable for the future of A-segment
    as we know it.
    Not for its very existence – on the contrary, as the introduction
    of a Kei-like category is more a matter of when, then if
    (Ami One’s 2.50m x 1.50m footprint is a tell-tale).

    1. Arrogant self referencing metropolitan-centric politicians (aka ‘Greens’, particularly in Germany) don’t give a damn sh*t on whether rural population does need or can afford A segment cars. For them every car on the road is an unnecessary evil and a world without cars is what they’re dreaming about.
      When impending emission control regulations require equipment that cannot be payed for within the budget restrictions of an A class car then the solution would be to exempt small cars from these regulations. Now try to imagine the shitstorm in the media this would cause and imagine who would be the protagonists of this shitstorm: arrogant self-referencing metropolitan-centric politicians and media people.

      In the end the current development will lead to a situation we already had roughly hundred years ago when cars were toys for the wealthy and this situation will be forced upon us faster than we can imagine. With new ICE cars forced off the road by emission control regulations and BEVs being prohibitively expensive and generally unsuitable for everyday use most people will be faced with no mobility other than public transport.

  8. At least here in Europe, I imagine a future not too far away in which a private, non autonomous car will be the equivalent of a sail boat, or a horse today. We will drive only for the pleasure of it, and will be allowed to drive only on restricted roads; the rest will be off limits except for autonomous conveyances. Driving from one place to another for the joy of it will be viewed as an interesting, slightly quirky weekend hobby, to be enjoyed as part of a club and (gasp!!) the art of shifting gears by yourself will be an odd obsession, like building and collecting cuckoo clocks… Sorry, I’m in a dystopian mood today! 🙂

    1. Cesar, Dave, I can relate to both of your observations very well.

      Let me attempt (ever so modestly) to find some sort of middle ground. Because despite being an ardent car enthusiast, my vision of this future you describe is much more utopian than dystopian.

      As outlined above by Alexpinaweiß, Dave and others: I think we agree the future for the car breaks down into two distinct categories. Urban and extra-urban.

      The urban scenario:

      Who disagrees that (European) cities would be better of without individually owned and driven cars? It would be quieter, it would be cleaner, it would be safer. I think it would be the most distinct positive impact on quality of life since the invention of electricity. Of course for emergency vehicles and some commercial traffic exceptions would have to be made. And mobility alternatives, public transport, electric bicycles, etc., have some way to go to fill the gap cars would leave, no doubt. But I do think the car free city is a vision to look forward to!

      The extra-urban scenario:

      Outside cities, the above is an entirely unrealistic scenario and individually owned and operated cars, including those propelled by ICE, will play an essential role for the foreseeable future. Environmentally, I think this is the much smaller part of the car problem.

      Now of course it gets very interesting at the intersection from extra-urban to urban space as there need to be (parking) facilities that make for a smooth transition from car based to car-free mobility. But I don’t see why there should not be clever, cost efficient solutions for this.

      What have we gained?
      – Quiet, safe, spacious, more livable, more human cities
      – Huge greenhouse gas emmission savings

      What have we lost?
      – City traffic (I would not cry a single tear were it gone tomorrow)
      – One out of many inner-city mobility options, which is often not the fastest

      And, as the enthusiast I will likely continue to be, I am very happy to accept that I can only pursue my hobby outside of urban areas. There will be enthusiast garages and places to rent all sorts of exotic and ancient cars (like a first generation Renault Twingo. What a delight that will be in 20 years from now!)

      Obviously this is a somewhat simplistic view. But I think, this is a future to look forward to. Happy to have the flaws in my reasoning pointed out to me.

    2. I know at least one group of people who dont’t think that European cities are better without cars: shopkeepers in the centre of the cities…

      City councils are whining about doughnut effects in inner cities and deserted areas full of office buildings where a couple of years ago there were shops and urban life. That’s the result of banishing car drivers when there’s an alternative in the form of online shopping (if they don’t want my car they don’t get my money). Why should anybody drive into a city when they’re ripped off by fees and why should they use public transport when that is slow, dirty and expensive when everything they need can be ordered from home with three mouse clicks? During my last trip into the nearest town (by public transport, by the way, at least for the last couple of kilometres) I noticed that it must have been at least two if not three years since I last had been there. Going into physical shops is such an utterly unpleasant experience I can easily live without for most of the time. That would make a BEV unnecessary for this kind of trip and for the rest of my driving it’s unsuitable.

      Regarding the furute importance of ICE powered cars there was an interesting statement of a high ranking bigwig at Toyota (of all things) who stated that they’d come to the conclusion that it does not make sense to use electric power for every imaginable cars because a battery operated Landcruiser in Nepal would just be an unrealistic proposal.

  9. Give it a flip-up rear seatbase, and this could be a concept for the next Honda Jazz, in my opinion. If both manufacturers are to be believed, there could be a near £10k difference between this and the new Honda EV. This Fiat would also gives the dealers something to sell between car sales, though how popular would it be? Did many people swap their Smart panels? They could be onto something with the modular batteries, as long as it’s NCAP compatible.

    Auto Express suggested that this would sit above the current Panda, like the variants of the 500. That car will be joined (not replaced) by an “upmarket” EV500, leaving the existing 500 and Panda for those who want/need combustion engines.

    The Tipo is an uncommon sight in the UK (not for me – my neighbour has one, replacing his Marea Weekend). If African (RHD) sales are good, that might delay its cancellation. If they are resurrecting names, would Uno be a decent fit for the production 120?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.