I’ve just witnessed the launch of the new Fiat 500. I know what you’re thinking; didn’t our man Will Powell do that a few weeks ago? Well, yes and no. Will was at the London launch; I was at the Japanese launch of the car, which went off at Tokyo’s Italian Institute of Culture, in Chiyoda, earlier today.
In textbook Japanese style, Fiat Japan rolled out the new 500, the girls clad in traditional wafuku kimonos (see above), even the cherry blossom – and Tokyo’s motoring press turned up in numbers. They invited 500; more than 1000 actually arrived, many of whom had to be refused access to the Institute’s Umberto Agnelli auditorium.
The 500 is big deal for Fiat Japan. The firm’s distribution outfit is a fairly small one in comparison with Fiat UK. It sells 6000 cars a year right now, whereas Fiat UK turns around probably six times as many. The 500 is a car, it’s hoping, that can effectively double its sales, up beyond the 10,000 cars mark for 2008, and beyond that for 2009.
And driving around this city, it’s easy to see why. Contrary to what you may expect, Tokyo’s is actually quite a staid, unimaginative automotive landscape – but it’s also a uniquely postmodern one. Here, half the cars you see are what look like 30-year-old Nissan Cedric and Toyota Crown cabs; in fact, these Datsun-Cherry-a-likes are still made by Japan's domestic car-makers exclusively for service as cabs.
The rest of the cars here tend to be modern, but conservative-looking monoboxes – small vans, MPVs, and the occasional low-spec, upright hatchback. To a model, they are all white, silver, grey or black. There is very little colour here unless you count the rainbow-hued taxis. But there is a particularly interesting coming together of automotive design languages old and new.
That’s why the retro 500 could go down an absolute storm. Cleverly, Fiat will make all cars sold duoselect automatics, so they’ll be ideally suited to the realities of the city’s stop-go traffic too.
All this car has to do to succeed is to be desirable enough to break a few of this city’s 12 million inhabitants out of the culture of obedience and conformism that seems to be omnipresent here. Residents of Tokyo will need to be brave enough to stand being looked at in order to actually drive one of these things. I suspect many of them would rather remain anonymous.
You’ll need to not mind paying over the odds for this little car to buy one too. The 500 will cost the equivalent of £9k here; you can get a Nissan March (Micra to you and me) for not much more than £5500.
For all that, though, I reckon the 500 will be a roaring success. I reckon Fiat Japan will be able to sell as many as they can get hold of. It’ll be a welcome, three-and-a-half metre breath of fresh air for passers by like me, too. After all, there are only so many Toyota Crowns a right-thinking man can count.