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Summary:

Back in 2007, the Mac web rumor mill was abuzz for a while about a reported September meeting in California between Steve Jobs and Volkswagen CEO Winterkorn over possibly integrating the iPod, iPhone, and other Apple products into an automobile — with blogosphere speculation about possibly […]

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Back in 2007, the Mac web rumor mill was abuzz for a while about a reported September meeting in California between Steve Jobs and Volkswagen CEO Winterkorn over possibly integrating the iPod, iPhone, and other Apple products into an automobile — with blogosphere speculation about possibly even an Apple/VW joint venture “iCar” project.

However, by late November, the German site Capital was reporting (Google translation) that Apple/VW discussions, although confirmed by Volkswagen, had ground to a halt.

Steve Jobs as Auto Exec.?

Fast-forward two years. It’s an understatement to say that the automobile industry has been turned on its head by the global recession. Apple, however, is doing considerably better, which has led to speculation as to what Steve Jobs would do were he running an auto-making firm — say beleaguered General Motors. Last fall the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman mused, “Somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.”

Fiat Chrysler a More Logical iCar Partner

Steve Jobs of course has had other challenges to contend with over the past year, but the ideal of an Apple iCar still tantalizes some of us crossover auto-buff Mac and gadget fans. I think a rather more promising candidate for an Apple automotive venture joint partner would be Chrysler, rather than GM or VW.

Why? Well for one thing, Chrysler is now controlled by Italy’s Fiat S.p.A., currently in the hunt to re-enter the U.S. automobile market after a nearly two-decade absence, building the brand from the ground up, as it were, and the CEO of both companies, Sergio Marchionne, is reportedly a big fan of the Apple business model.

Last June, TIME magazine noted that, “Since he took over as chief executive of Italy’s Fiat in 2004, the chain-smoking Canadian-Italian has used Apple as a model, focusing on the way Steve Jobs transformed it from an also-ran computer company into a global icon of cool. He encourages Fiat managers to take a close look at Apple’s branding prowess and even asks them to benchmark their activities against the company.”

The TIME piece also cited Carlo Alberto Carnevale, professor of strategic management at Milan’s Bocconi University’s business school, observing, “The challenge for Fiat Chrysler is to move away from popular products and into ‘pop’ products, full of cool environmental technology and on the right side of history. In that sense, it’s the same bet as Steve Jobs’. That’s why Marchionne uses that metaphor.”

Why Not an iCar Version Too?

But what if it became more than a metaphor? I say this because the iconic Fiat 500C (“Cinquecento”), which has been a rip-roaring sales hit in Europe and elsewhere (currently sold in 59 markets), is expected to anchor the brand’s re-entry into the North American car market, with Road & Track magazine reporting that at least four Fiat 500 versions will be gracing showrooms here for the 2011 model year, including hatchback, convertible, wagon, and sporty-hatch versions. Why not a fifth, “iCar” version?

The Fiat 500 seems to me an ideal base for an iCar treatment. Unveiled at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show, the new Fiat 500C version is like the VW New Beetle, the BMW Mini, and arguably even the Ford Mustang, a retro-interpretation of an automotive icon from the ’50s or ’60s, in this instance the original 1957 fabric roof Fiat 500, but with thoroughly modern mechanicals and engineering under the classic-appearing skin. Fiat notes that the new Cinquecento was developed by the Centro Stile Fiat design center using an IT industry-esque “open-source approach,” continually evolving on the basis of input from users and enthusiasts.

Environmentally Friendly and Uber-Cool

The Fiat 500, available with a variety of what the company says are “environmentally friendly engines,” has reconfirmed its status as an Italian style icon, winning more than 30 awards, and with upwards of 11 million internet users visiting its website. Fiat affirms that is sees the Cinquecento to be a “platform upon which Fiat Automobiles is building a whole family of cars with advanced technology and high attention to detail.” It’s not at all an extravagant stretch to imagine that an iCar version of the Fiat 500C could quite harmoniously be included in that vision.

A Cinquecento-based, Apple co-branded iCar would have both the timely characteristics of small size and light environmental footprint, which, combined with the uber-cool Apple “i-factor” that could at least conceivably make it the iPhone/iPod/iMac of the automobile world. Perhaps I’m wildly fantasizing, but it sounds like a workable plan to me.

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  1. As much as I, personally, would love a Fiat 500 (I can has Abarth pls?) I don’t think that’s the car for Apple. Retro isn’t Apple’s thing. But from the same company we should also be getting another little vehicle that, I think, would suit Apple much more; the Alfa Romeo Mito.

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  2. i been wanting one of those. the “abarth tributo ferrari” : ( however its not available in the US : ( yes im not sure about apple and fiat, retro isn’t apple.
    apple tends to be more simple and contemporary.

    i think suitable car + apple = audi ( but i guess its not really “small” budget car )

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  3. I think the more interesting conversation wouldn’t be who should make an iCar, but what attributes would an iCar have?

    Diesel preferably / FlexFuel minimally + hybrid pluggable or all electric or hydrogen?

    How much power can we push over inductive charging anyway? Be neat not to have to plug in the hybrid to have enough power for 100 miles between charges.

    Autopilot? ;-)

    By the by, there are way too many buttons on that dashboard. And a gear shift is pretty silly in 2009. I’m not sure that a steering “wheel” is the best solution. Cruise control needs a way better interface.

    And it’d be practically stupid not to build a call with either an in-dash or heads up display so as to be able to route around traffic and such.

    But I’m not a car person…so what do I know?

    reinharden

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  4. We can see a couple of things Steve Jobs would do in an American car company, based on what he did with Apple in the 90s:

    1. Drop excessive/unprofitable/bad-return product lines – he killed the Newton, killed duplicate models of computers that weren’t popular

    2. Drop incoherent product names/numbers, and replace with something easy to remember – look at Dell’s lineup of computers vs. Apple’s simple lineup. Even hard-core geeks have trouble comparing Dell models. What is a Latitude S370M (whatever) to a Mac Pro?

    3. Standardize parts between models, where possible, to cut down on manufacturing costs.

    4. Focus on design – hire mostly designers, and keep the rest of the staff as lean as possible. Don’t hire if you don’t need to.

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  5. Fiats are a POS. Might as well trick out a Yugo. Good idea, bad choice of vehicle.

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  6. This is the iCar, IMHO.

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  7. My wife has a Fiat 500 (I’m in the UK). Great car and a hoot to drive. It’s only the 1.4 litre Sporting model (100bhp) but a great combination of style and (nearly enough) power.

    There may be a problem with this suggestion…

    On the rear end of the centre console, between the seats there’s a USB socket. Next to the USB socket is a “Powered by Windows” sticker.

    Aaaaaaargh!!!

    If the car won’t start, you have to close any open windows :-)

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  8. It appears the new generation Fiat 500 is doing to Fiat what the first iPod did to Apple: It brought it back to the mainstream. I guess it was just a matter of time before Apple technology found its way into cars and the (deservedly) popular Fiat 500 seems as good a car to start with as any. In time, such technology would be bound to spread to other models – namely Fiat (Alfa Romeo, Lancia) and before long to Chrysler (Dodge, Jeep), the same way Apple extended the range of iPods and applied the same philosophy to its range of computers and all other things Apple.
    Think back last year at Detroit Auto Show 2008, when Chrysler presented its Chrysler 200C concept car, with iPhone inspired touchscreen dashboard… See where I’m getting at!? First in a Fiat, and down the road, in a Chrysler! ;o)
    Being both an Apple and a Chrysler fan, I certainly like the idea.
    P.S.: Also, knowing a little about Walter P. Chrysler’s life and times, it occurs to me that maybe he and Steve Jobs were not all that different.

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  9. Charles W. Moore Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    I prefer a standard stickshift with a clutch pedal, given my ‘druthers, but the Fiat 500C will also be available with Dualogic – a clutchless, 5-speed sequential manual shift with a selectable fully automatic mode offered as an optional transmission on all gasoline-engined Fiat 500 models. This automated transmission system also lays the foundations for more intelligent engine operation management with lower fuel consumption and reduced CO2 emissions of only 110 g/km. The advanced system uses the automatic clutch to disengage the engine from the transmission whenever traction is not required, and switches the engine off, with automatic restarting on demand.

    Charles Moore

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