“Redesigning an icon is almost impossible but Fiat has a solution"

Fiat makes no bones about its reluctance to change the winning formula that is the 500. Graham Hope thinks it's a sensible strategy

Redesigning an instantly recognisable, iconic car is one of the hardest jobs in the motor industry. Some would say it’s impossible. But Fiat believes it has a solution, of sorts. Simply don’t do it. And it’s hard to argue with its logic. Nine years after it was launched, and with a bare minimum of design changes, the 500 continues to perform wonders in the sales charts.

In many markets it is matching what it did sales wise in 2007. In some it is actually exceeding them. No matter that there are now better options in terms of dynamics. Buyers can’t get enough of that cheeky styling. Little wonder, then, that there was precious little talk of a replacement when I asked Fiat’s global brand chief Olivier Francois what his plans were.

2016 Fiat 500 review

Weird car special editions - Fiat 500 Riva interior

Francois told me: “There will be a new 500 when we need one, and when we are able to design one without abusing what is our icon. But it is a very heavy responsibility. It is not feasible or conceivable to totally change it.”

Francois has a point. You only need to look at the Volkswagen Beetle, for example, which has lost a lot of its original lustre in its current incarnation, to see the pitfalls that lie in wait. “Design-wise it is super-challenging,” he continued. “We are working on it but very cautiously.”

Of course, there have been regular updates to the current car, and according to Francois it is now very different to the one that was first launched. He stressed: “We have changed 60 per cent of the car between 2007 and 2016. Aesthetically it looks a little better but it is very close, but a lot of the substance has evolved with one thing in mind – keeping it relevant.”

Fiat 500C vs MINI Cooper Convertible vs DS 3 Cabrio

And Francois’ idea of relevance is very clear; under the skin it can change dramatically but the styling simply cannot and will not. He explained: “When you have a real icon, like the Porsche 911 or Vespa scooter, you are blessed to have such an object in your hands. The only thing you need to be obsessed with is keeping it relevant, because once an item is no longer relevant – like the London red phone box – it becomes a dead icon.

“All I need to do with the 500 is not grow it very much, be very careful with the styling and keep it loaded with CarPlay, Android Auto, TFT clusters, the right engine for the right moment.” Further down the line more electrification seems likely too, with the 500e (below) already on sale in certain US states. “Absolutely,” said Francois of the prospect.

Fiat 500e front three-quarters

But the key message is clear; for now the 500 is going to march on with its cutesy retro looks, with a 10th anniversary of the ‘new’ model and 60th anniversary of the original in 2017 presenting greater opportunities for even higher sales - and no sign of an all-new model on the horizon.

Francois is unrepentant about the firm’s strategy. He concluded: “We are lucky to have a perfect sized icon; history blessed us with an icon that is more relevant than ever because it is a city car and people are hungry for urban mobility solutions. Because it is our golden goose, we are very protective of it.” It’s a hugely sensible strategy that has served Fiat well for nearly a decade, and is likely to do so for some time yet.

Do you think Fiat should consider a more comprehensive redesign of the 500? Why not let us know in the comments below...

Recommended

New Fiat 500 Hey Google special editions revealed
Fiat 500 Google - front
Fiat 500

New Fiat 500 Hey Google special editions revealed

Fiat’s 500 range now supports Google’s voice command system, and the firm has launched a trio of special edition models to celebrate
31 Mar 2021
Fiat 500 review
Fiat 500 mild hybrid side view
Fiat 500

Fiat 500 review

The Fiat 500 Mild Hybrid isn’t as practical as newer city car rivals, but it's still a stylish runabout
25 Mar 2021
New Fiat 500 owners rewarded with cryptocurrency for efficient driving
Fiat 500 cryptocurrency
News

New Fiat 500 owners rewarded with cryptocurrency for efficient driving

Drivers of the new Fiat 500 will receive KiriCoin cryptocurrency by perfecting their sustainable driving style
16 Mar 2021
Fiat 500 Abarth review
Abarth 595 Competizione - front
Abarth 500

Fiat 500 Abarth review

Fiat 500 Abarth is a racy hot hatchback with the sweet looks of the iconic city car - but a firm ride lets it down
19 Feb 2021

Most Popular

Next-generation Range Rover Sport to get racy new look
Range Rover Sport render
News

Next-generation Range Rover Sport to get racy new look

Our exclusive images preview what the upcoming Range Rover Sport could look like
12 May 2021
New 2022 Dacia Bigster to move budget brand into large SUV market
Dacia Bigster - front (watermarked)
Dacia

New 2022 Dacia Bigster to move budget brand into large SUV market

The Dacia Bigster SUV will arrive with value in mind, but hybrid tech will also appear. Our exclusive images preview how it could look
14 May 2021
New Cupra Leon 2021 review
Cupra Leon - front
SEAT Leon Cupra

New Cupra Leon 2021 review

The new Cupra Leon shares much with the VW Golf GTI Clubsport, but is more focused and cheaper
13 May 2021