Fiat 500: small car, big project (video)

  • 19-Jun-2011 10:40 EDT
Fiat 500 exterior.jpg

The North American 500’s body (pictured) and structure are largely the same as its European counterpart, but with some important tweaks to satisfy U.S. requirements and expectations—such as a redesigned headlamp system and new grille inserts.

Timing is everything, the old saying goes. With the recent North American introduction of the subcompact Fiat 500—just as the specter of $4/gal gasoline becomes reality in many parts of the U.S.—the timing, it would seem, is impeccable.

As of May 16, the national average gasoline price had climbed to $3.960, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So a new A-segment hatchback with a base price of $15,500 that offers 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway (five-speed manual version)—not to mention unique styling inspired by an Italian classic—could expectedly be well-received in such a market climate.

Through May, 3141 Fiat 500s had been sold in the U.S. (The car went on sale in March.) The automaker expects to sell 50,000 units in 2011 in the U.S. and Canada.

“Everybody’s entering this segment. Why? Because the small-car segment in North America is expected to more than double by the end of 2014,” Laura Soave, Head of Fiat Brand North America, said at a media event for the 2012 Fiat 500 prior to its launch. “Downsizing is a trend we see in every lifestyle product, and we believe that Cinquecento [500] is a lifestyle product—it’s more than an automobile.”

A range of 500s will help kick-start the Fiat brand’s revival on U.S. roadways after a more than 20-year absence. Following the hatchback to market in late spring is a cabriolet model (click here to view AEI-captured video of the new 500c and its chief engineer), revealed in April at the New York International Auto Show. And two additional models have already been approved for North America: a higher-performance Abarth edition in the first quarter of 2012, and at the end of next year a fully electric Fiat 500.

From Turin to Detroit…

Adapting a car from one market to another is difficult enough; doing so in less than 18 months is especially tough, Vehicle Line Executive for the Fiat 500, Joe Grace, said during a one-on-one chat with AEI.

Beyond any technical challenges—namely completing all of the required changes to the car for homologation in the U.S., including all of the certification testing—one of the biggest challenges, Grace admitted, was “bringing together the Fiat processes and the Chrysler processes, and then going from basically zero to building the vehicles at the Toluca [Mexico] plant.”

The consensus among quite a few Chrysler engineers and other employees who have spoken with AEI over the past several months, however, is that the Chrysler and Fiat corporate cultures mesh very well, no doubt helping to smooth the integration of the product-development processes.

“Very, very closely,” Grace stressed, describing how Chrysler engineers worked with their Italian counterparts on the 500 project. So closely, in fact, that “a small core”—five, to be exact—“of really talented Fiat engineers came with the project from Europe,” he shared.

Fabio DiMuro, Chief Engineer for the 500 in Europe, was one of those talents who traveled to Detroit in January 2010, seven months after Chrysler was sold to the Turin-based automaker. The entourage also included a couple of chassis specialists, one engineer from the body area, and another from the interiors group.

“We [Fabio and I] work very closely together because obviously I know the Chrysler system very well and I understood the market requirements, and he knew the car very well,” the 26-year veteran of Chrysler said.

The Fiat team performed the initial work, the “first design steps,” for the changes required, and then the Chrysler team jumped in to work out the design details and validation—the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of the project. But Grace acknowledged that all the while it was a collaborative effort.

“They [the Fiat engineers] all had key roles as we finished both the design process and then got into the whole piloting and prove-out,” he said. “It wasn’t at all like, ‘Here it is.’ So we have a very close connection with Turin and with the team.”

…and back again?

The stateside incarnation of the Fiat 500 has been thoroughly “Americanized”—which inside the car means wider seats, a redesigned center console that accommodates larger drinks, and more sound-damping materials compared to the European-spec 500. For the Sport model, both the front and rear fascias are redesigned, with new grille inserts offering more character, and the car rides on larger, 16-in wheels and tires.

But, of course, more substantial engineering changes than these were undertaken. Chief among those is a new Aisin six-speed automatic transmission, which Grace noted is “critically important” for the car’s success in the U.S. market.

“That Aisin six-speed is not quite off-the-shelf, but the internals are off-the-shelf,” which helped in meeting the timing requirements of the 14-month powertrain program, shared Michael Vincent, Chief Program Engineer for the 1.4 MultiAir Engine. “We had them cast a new bell housing to mate up to the engine, but other than that it was fully validated; it’s in production with other OEMs. So from a controls and calibration perspective, we started with a sound foundation and were able to work together with Aisin to come up with a really nice package.”

Equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission, the 500 gets 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway. The 1.4-L, inline four-cylinder with MultiAir generates 101 hp (75 kW) at 6500 rpm and 98 lb·ft (133 N·m) at 4000 rpm.

“We had to remap the whole fuel system because we actually performed the first integration of a MultiAir engine into the Fiat 500,” said Vincent. “The performance calibration is all different here for the U.S.”

Engineers made a few hardware changes to the engine, he added, most notably on the PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) system, which is designed to accommodate “whatever oil customers buy” in the U.S. market. The team also added an oil viscosity sensor, which helps in modifying the starting control algorithm under any condition, as well as “a few more blockers” on the engine to protect parts during an impact, due to more stringent crash standards in the U.S. than in Europe.

Structurally, the car was modified somewhat to meet rear-impact requirements, in particular. A flat load floor with redeveloped rear rails provides more crush zone, and the spare tire is under-slung with a winch. For frontal impacts, energy is managed through three different load paths—a design approach developed initially for the 500 in Europe and “adjusted” for the car to come to the Americas, Grace explained.

“The vehicle coming out of Europe is very structurally sound; it’s a 2350-lb vehicle [that] achieved a five-star Euro NCAP rating,” he said. “For the U.S. market, there were just some modifications in the structure but fundamentally it’s the same—basically all of the key structural elements are high-strength steel.”

The base car for North America is about 80 lb (36 kg) heavier than the base European model, according to Grace, owing mainly to more content in the car.

Engineers also spent significant time revising suspension geometries, front and rear, to improve ride balance.

“There’s a new twist beam in the rear, which has better torsional stiffness,” Grace said, listing the suspension revisions. “We changed from cast lower control arms to a stamped lower control arm. All of the spring rates, the shocks, bushings, and sway bars were retuned for the new package. And we now have hydromounts for the engine/trans mounting, which is very important for ride quality because that’s a big suspended mass.”

With all of this engineering effort exerted in the U.S., the question becomes, how much, if any, of this re-engineering will be shipped back to Europe? A fair amount, it turns out.

According to Grace, the new rear suspension will eventually find its way on the European car because it utilizes new stamping technology that offers a stiffer section at a lower weight. “But,” he cautioned, “there’s a balance because that car is in production now, so you have to assess implementing the changes and how much tear-up you do to the current car.”

The new fascias on the Sport model are planned for the European version as well.

“On the vehicle side, Fabio has said that many of the changes that went on here [in the U.S.]—from suspension to structure for impact, and so on—they are asking to bring that back to Europe now,” Vincent added. “So that’s kind of the ultimate compliment to the Chrysler engineering effort to bring that car to this market, that they want it back there.”

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