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Fiat Centoventi: can this cute electric car revive the urban runabout – and even save Fiat?

Fiat Centoventi - Fiat Centro Stile studios - July 2019

Unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March, Fiat’s battery-electric Centoventi is more than an attractive concept to celebrate the Italian giant’s 120-year existence (centoventi is one hundred and twenty in Italian), but how much more? It raises questions, not just about battery-electric cars, but also about the future for small electric urban cars, whether we can afford them – and whether the motor industry can afford to make them.

We met Olivier Francois, Fiat brand head and chief marketing officer for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, at the company’s Centro Stile design headquarters in Turin to discuss just what this little Fiat actually means.

First allow me to jog your memory. The Centoventi is a jolly-looking sub-B-segment car slightly longer, lower and wider than the current Panda – its style recalls the original Giugiaro-designed Panda of 1980, the original Smart/Swatch car, or Volkswagen’s Up concept when it was still rear-engined and rear-wheel drive. 

The Centoventi has a 130mm longer wheelbase than the current Panda, however, which allows more space between the wheels to carry drive batteries in the floor.

Here’s where it gets clever, for while the standard Centoventi battery would give a range of only 62 miles, owners would be able to buy or rent up to three extra underfloor batteries, along with one that slides under the driver’s seat, to extend the range to up to 310 miles. According to Fiat, these batteries could be added in less than five minutes. It’s part of a wealth of clever thinking; the charge port for example, sits in front of the windscreen and has a self-retracting cable reel so cables don’t clutter the boot space.

The Centoventi concept's styling is a huge clue to how the next Fiat Panda will look

It’s a similar story with the Centoventi’s equipment; roof rails, body panels, interior equipment, baby seats in-car entertainment and even seat covers can all be added or rented after purchase. It echoes the utilitarian practicality of the original Panda, in which the rear seat could be folded into a bed, seat covers, door trims and dashboard cover were removable and washable and the car used flat glass for cheapness and interchangability. 

The Centoventi would be pretty basic as standard, but owners could continue to up-spec their cars, and in the process provide an income stream for a car which will require little servicing. In some respects these marketing ideas echo those originally mooted (but ultimately dropped) for the original Smart/Swatch cars.

But how real is any of this? My mind turns to Fiat’s Ecobasic concept of 2000, which was impressively clever and equally impressively buried without trace. And the question has special significance since next door to the room we are in is a radical design presentation including full-size models for the next generation of Fiat and Alfa Romeo models, which takes place in front of senior management the following day. Security staff are understandably nervous.

The interior is designed to be utilitarian, in the finest tradition of small Fiats, but also bright and endlessly customisable

“The looks are probably faithful to the next-generation Panda,” says Francois, “but the looks are incidental - almost. It’s not taking a big risk to say that there’s likely to be a car looking like this at some point, but what matters is the concept as a whole.”

He’s been touting those ideas for some time. “I started thinking about the future for Panda some years ago,” says Francois. “I became obsessed with its ‘less is more’ approach and why the Eighties Panda is still cool.”

He wrote a long pitch (ironic, since it was for a minimal car) on a plane back from Australia five years ago. It explored Fiat’s history of long-lived utilitarian cars such as the Panda (1980-2003) and Nuova 500 (1957-1975) and posited all manner of ideas such as a tent pole (inspired by USB charge poles in airports) in the middle of the car, thus doing away with conventional door pillars, as well as the idea of fixed seats and a moving dashboard.

The Centoventi has a longer wheelbase than the current Panda, allowing greater space for underfloor batteries: a standard battery would give a range of only 62 miles, although three extra underfloor batteries and one that fits under the passenger seat would boost the range to 310 miles

“The team sketched some cool stuff to go with it, reminiscent of the original Panda,” he says.

Then, nothing. Pitching to then Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne wasn’t easy; you had to pick your opportunity and that opportunity simply didn’t arrive. Eventually the pitch was printed and references to the Panda expunged, taking the title CC4 (City Car 4th generation). Marchionne eventually picked it up.

“He said it was directionally really good and promising,” says Francois, “but he dismissed it as ‘French design’ by which he meant self-indulgent. Sergio wasn’t a guy you wanted to push, so I got the team to make up a little video with its own music - he liked videos. I put it on a USB stick and gave it to him.”

Poignantly, the stick was still on Marchionne’s desk when he died unexpectedly last summer. Did he ever watch it? No one knows. It all came good for the Centoventi, though, as Michael Manley, who took over as Fiat-Chrysler’s chief executive, remembered the little car with big ideas and encouraged Francois to disinter it.

Olivier Francois, Fiat brand head and chief marketing officer for Fiat Chrysler, right, gives English the lowdown in Turin

“I couldn’t have been more grateful to Mike,” says Francois. “It’s been my passion and obsession and I’d really like it to be the next defining moment for Fiat.”

But will it? Car makers are currently pulling out of the sub-B sector as it becomes well-nigh impossible to build them to comply with tough new EU CO2 targets while making a profit. Ford is rumoured to be dropping its Ka+, Vauxhall/Opel won’t replace the Adam, PSA is reported to be considering axing its Peugeot 108 and Citroën C1, and Volkswagen seems unlikely to replace the Up range across all its brands (Seat and Skoda make remarkably similar cars).

While Francois claims the Fiat brand has the “legitimacy” for a small utility car such as the Centoventi, can it make enough profit, especially with an expensive battery on board? Besides, as it stands now Fiat’s range comfortably undercuts forthcoming EU CO2 corporate average targets of 95g/km, so why would it bother?

There's a spacious feel to the interior - and bright colours, naturally. Note the slot under the passenger seat for an additional battery

It’s a problem for all car makers, but especially for companies such as Fiat, which would struggle to command a premium for a chic, utilitarian battery car. Francois explains Fiat’s current thinking is to split the 500/Cinquecento range into new areas such as the forthcoming  500 Giardiniera estate and the electric Cinquecento, which has been spotted testing and for which Fiat has committed €700 million plus a production line at the Mirafiori, Turin plant - he says the Centoventi would share that car’s chassis platform and technology.

“It’s a question of timing,” he says. “A car like Centoventi needs to be cool, affordable, stylish and a clever solution, but it must also be a legitimate Fiat and make money.”

Francois says that government incentives are skewing the market into more expensive vehicles, but the day they disappear (as they are now starting to) there will be enormous pressure to produce cars such as the Centoventi.

“It is the democratic frontier of urban mobility,” he says, which sounds great but doesn’t really mean much.

The extremities are designed to cope with the inevitable dings and scrapes of urban life

Whatever happens, there are issues with the Centoventi concept - not least its profitability. Load up the basic car with all the extra batteries and you’ll have added almost half a tonne, so how will the suspension and brakes cope? Francois says the basic cars will have the heavy-duty chassis to suit, but that means they ride comfort might be compromised when driven with only one battery.

Lots of questions, few clear answers, but Francois is merely articulating the problems for all existing car makers in this new era in which expertise in combustion technology counts for zilch and legacy costs such as ageing factories and pension commitments hang like an albatross tied round the old car makers’ necks.

The Centoventi throws a spotlight into this new reality. You’ve got to hope it will be reach full production, not simply because it’s clever and cute, but also because if it doesn’t it might mean that Fiat no longer exists.

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