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2007-07-04 12:12

Fiat 500

Rome - It was the small car you could park in the narrowest space on the piazza, as Italian as Prosciutto and espresso. On its 50th birthday the Cinquecento is back, and Fiat says it will become the iPod of cars.

Fiat is launching a new version of the three-door Cinquecento - which means "500" in Italian - at a ceremony in its hometown of Turin on Wednesday, with the car making its comeback after going out of production in the 1970s.

Fiat's chief executive says he wants to emulate Apple by making its cars as stylish as the US company's computers and electronic gadgets, including the mass-selling iPod portable music player.

"I want Fiat to become the Apple of cars," Sergio Marchionne told La Stampa newspaper in an interview published on Wednesday.

"And the Cinquecento will be our iPod," he said, referring to Apple's hugely successful iPod.

Like the Mini or the Volkswagen Beetle, the Cinquecento is an icon. For Italians, it epitomises the economic boom that their country enjoyed after the Second World War.

Cheap and efficient, it gradually replaced the scooter for millions of people whose living standards improved dramatically during the 1950s and 1960s.

After 18 years on the road the Cinquecento went out of production in 1975.

Marchionne said he was working to make Fiat a nimble carmaker after a successful restructuring.

It took Fiat 18 months to bring the new 500 to market.

"It's twice the time for a child to be born but half of what our competitors need (to make their own cars)," Marchionne said.

Faithful to the spirit of the original, the Cinquecento will sell as a mass-market, rather than a premium, car.

Its production target will also be small: an annual 120 000 units against a total Fiat output of about 2 million units.

And it faces competition from cars such as Renault's revamped Twingo.

Analysts expect the new 500 to help Fiat's image rather than its bottom line even though it will be built at a Polish plant to keep costs down.

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