The Fiat 500 Runs on Gas--and Soon, Natural Gas

Fiat's 500 burns the cleanest fossil fuel around

This article is part of an IEEE Spectrum special report: Top 10 Tech Cars of 2010.

In July 2007, exactly 50 years after the original Fiat 500 rolled off the assembly line, Fiat unveiled its Nuova 500. The company was following what BMW and Volkswagen had already done for the Mini and Beetle—creating a modern vehicle styled after one of the iconic cars of postwar Europe. But Fiat is now taking a big technological step forward by putting an advanced new engine into its cute little retro car.

Later this year, Fiat will offer the Nuova 500 with its new Small Gasoline Engine, or SGE. Like the little putter in the original Fiat 500, the SGE has only two cylinders, giving a displacement of just 900 cubic centimeters, about the size of what you might find powering a Ducati.

But this is no ordinary motorcycle engine. It’s got a start-stop system to shut down the engine when the car is stationary, and some versions will include turbochargers, providing as much as 78 kilowatts (105 horsepower). And the engine will include Fiat’s new MultiAir variable valve timing, an electromechanical system that independently actuates each cylinder’s two intake valves, to let the engine deliver more power at high revs without sacrificing torque or drivability at low engine speeds.

Variable valve timing has been around for years. What distinguishes the MultiAir system is that it gives fine control of the intake valves using a solenoid and hydraulic pressure generated by the camshaft. It has two other slick features: It allows exhaust gases to be recirculated merely by opening the input valves during the exhaust stroke, and it eliminates the need for a throttle mechanism to reduce airflow into the cylinders.

In July 2009, Fiat said it would introduce the car to the U.S. market by early 2011. Adding to ecodrivers’ excitement, Fiat plans to follow up with a hybrid SGE along with a version that can burn compressed natural gas. So Fiat’s Nuova 500 combined this year with the company’s new SGE power plants will surely help to illustrate how, with the right technology, downsizing can be downright exhilarating.

This article originally appeared in print as "Fiat’s retro car runs on gas—and soon on natural gas."

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