The 1991 Cinquecento was a great city car and, in design terms, a hard act to follow, as Fiat found out with its replacement.
Fiat in 2021 is a pale shadow of the once mighty automaker that dominated Italian industry for decades. Half a century ago, the company produced a full range of cars, from the diminutive rear-engined 126 to the handsome V6 engined 130 luxury saloon and coupé. That notwithstanding, Fiat was always best known and most highly regarded for its expertise and success in small cars.
The 1955 Fiat 600 and its smaller sibling, the 1957 500 model, successfully mobilised Italy in the post-war years. They were small, light, economical and robust cars that fitted perfectly into the historic streetscape of many Italian villages, towns and cities, with their narrow, winding streets. Both were notable for their longevity: the 600 remained in production until 1969. The 500 continued until 1975, selling alongside the 1972 126 which was, effectively, a rebodied 500.
The 126 continued in production in Italy until 1980 when it was partly replaced by the larger and more practical Panda. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, this was intentionally a back-to-basics car with its flat glass, exposed door hinges and sprayed-on bodyside stone chip protection. Inside, a hammock rear seat, removable and washable seat covers and a full width open shelf in front of driver and passenger emphasised its utility and versatility. It would go on to be a huge success for Fiat, selling almost 4.5 million units over 23 years on the market.
For all the Panda’s success, some within Fiat felt that its utilitarian nature did not appeal to all buyers, in particular city dwellers. A compact, economical, but more conventional and smarter looking city car would complement the Panda within Fiat’s range.
The 126 was still manufactured by FSM, Fiat’s Polish commercial partner, and remained Fiat’s city car contender. However, it was unsophisticated and increasingly dated, and was short of both interior and boot space. Work began on a replacement that would reprise the 500 and 126 formula, but in a modern FWD package. The name for the new model seemed inevitable: Cinquecento (500) in honour of its 1957 ancestor.
The Cinquecento was styled in-house under Ermanno Cressoni. Working within the tight constraints of the city car footprint, centro stile designed a neat three-door hatchback with an upright tail and low, sloping front end. The front grille was incorporated into the grey plastic impact-resistant bumper and the smooth nose was adorned only with the contemporary Fiat five-bar logo.
Slim, horizontal tail lights immediately above the bumper allowed the hatchback opening to be as wide as possible. The bodysides were adorned with a subtle horizontal crease, below which was a more pronounced indent connecting the wheel arches. To maximise interior space, the car was almost as tall at 1,435mm (56½”) as it was wide at 1,490mm (58¾”). The wheelbase was 2,200mm (86½”) and the overall length was 3,230mm (127¼”).
The FWD mechanical package was resolutely conventional except in one respect: Fiat decided to carry over the carburettor-fed 704cc 31bhp (23kW) flat-twin engine(1) from the Polish-built FSM 126p Bis(2). This would be mounted longitudinally under the bonnet, unlike the larger fuel-injected 899cc 39bhp (31kW) inline four-cylinder option(3), which was installed transversely. This necessitated the use of two different gearbox/transaxle units. In order to take advantage of lower labour costs, the Cinquecento would be built at the FSM plant in Tychy, Poland and sold in that country under the FSM brand. The smaller engine would only be offered in that market. All Fiat versions would feature the larger unit.
The Cinquecento was launched in December 1991. To distance it from the similarly sized Panda, it was offered with a number of optional luxury features such as central locking, electric windows and air conditioning.
In 1994 the 1,108cc OHC engine from the Punto was installed for the warm hatch Sporting version. This was distinguished by body-coloured bumpers and mirrors, 13” alloy wheels on lowered suspension, sports seats with red seat belts, a tachometer and an optional signature yellow body colour. There was also an Abarth option, but this was merely a cosmetic pack with no further mechanical changes. The engine produced 53bhp (40kW), enough to give the light and wieldy Cinquecento lively performance.
The Cinquecento was also offered in Elettra EV form from 1992 to 1996, with a choice of lead-acid or Ni-Cd batteries. The former had a range of 100km (62 miles) the latter 150km (93 miles). Despite a high price and limited range, it was surprisingly popular in mainland Europe.
The Cinquecento remained on the market for seven years and sold steadily without any significant updates. Total sales were 1,164,525. Its last three full years on sale were its best, with over 200,000 sold each year. Had Fiat anticipated that buoyancy in sales, it might have postponed the Cinquecento’s replacement, but a new model had been developed for launch in 1998.
The new model was named Seicento (600) which was at the same time logical in that it implied progression, but illogical in that it discarded the name recognition and goodwill for the outgoing model. In any event, the Seicento was obviously a heavy reskin of the Cinquecento, retaining the same platform and mechanical package. Width, height and wheelbase were all unchanged, while the overall length grew by 107mm (4¼”) to 3,337mm (131½”).
In order to distinguish the Seicento from its predecessor, Cressoni tried to overlay a more curvaceous style, which was problematic within the confines of the existing dimensions. Looks are, of course, subjective, but the Siecento was noticeably less successful than its pert and attractive predecessor. The upswept rear side window appeared slightly forced, while the upwardly curved lower edge of the tailgate(4) looked either to be poorly fitting, or the result of a nefarious attempt to jemmy it open.
At the front, the Cinquecento’s central slot beneath the bonnet’s leading edge was, depending on the model, either replaced by two slots under the headlamps, or widened to run under the headlamps as well, terminating at the direction indicators. This made the headlamps and indicators look misaligned, with the former too shallow for the latter, or vise-versa. In fairness to Cressoni and his colleagues, being required to update a previously near-perfect design and make it sufficiently different to look new was a difficult task within the constraints they was under, and they made a reasonable job of it.
The 704cc flat-twin engine was not carried forward to the Seicento, which was launched with the outgoing model’s four-cylinder units. The 899cc engine was pensioned off in 2001, at which time the 1,108cc engine was given multi-point fuel injection to improve economy and emissions. The Sporting version continued and was augmented in 2000 with a slightly preposterous Michael Schumacher special edition with the Abarth bodykit, to celebrate the F1 racer’s success with the Ferrari team. What Schumacher privately thought about this is unknown, although he did appear in a German language TV commercial for the Seicento Sporting, which may be found here.
The Seicento remained on the market for twelve years and outsold its predecessor, with total sales of 1,328,973 units. There were the usual upgrades to trim and equipment to stimulate interest, and it even survived a poor Euro NCAP rating of 1½ stars, for a while at least.
The economics of manufacturing small and light city cars like the Cinquecento and Seicento are now pretty unattractive, mainly as a consequence of increasingly tough crash safety regulations. The same regulations are partly responsible for the zero-sum automotive arms race to ever larger and heavier cars, which is precisely the wrong direction for the industry. A shame and, potentially, a tragedy.
(1) The relocation of the engine to the front required it to be extensively re-engineered, however. Even the direction of rotation of the crankshaft had to be reversed.
(2) The Bis was an updated version of the 126p, launched in 1987, with an enlarged 704cc engine, now water rather than air-cooled, and a hatchback rear door.
(3) This was an update of the venerable 903cc engine from the Fiat 127, with a slight reduction in capacity to accommodate taxation bands in certain markets.
(4) This was done to provide a handle to lift the tailgate. The Cinquecento instead had a push-button release with a built-in handle, a neater solution.