Photos: Fiat

There’s certain trends for concept cars that seem to always manage to resurface, and module cars is one of them. Fiat’s embracing modularity and customizability full-on with their engaging new concept car, the Centoventi. It’s an interesting exercise in accessible, clever design for everyone, which is the essence of Fiat when they’re at their best.

The name Centoventi means 120 in Italian, because the brand celebrates its 120th birthday this year, and this concept seems like a pretty good way to commemorate that. On one level, you can look at it like a modern, electric re-interpretation of the original Fiat Panda, having a similar general tall-and-boxy shape, and the flexibility and utility of the overall concept certainly echo the most appealing parts of the Panda as well.

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We should be seeing this at the Geneva Motor Show very soon, which is good, because I think most or all of these images are renders.

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Like Honda’s new electric city car concept, though, the Centoventi isn’t too hung up on being slavishly retro (though I do see the 500's trademark front-end character line in the front here) and does have a lot of innovative ideas, starting right at how it could be built and sold. Here’s what the PR drones say:

The Fiat Concept Centoventi is fundamentally a ‘blank canvas’, ready to be painted to suit the customer’s tastes and needs at any time of his/her life or day, without no customisation restrictions linked to the time of purchase. In fact, it will be produced in just one livery, which customers will be able to personalise using the ‘4U’ programme, with a choice of 4 roofs, 4 bumpers, 4 wheel covers and 4 external wrappings.

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I’ve always loved the idea of this, but for the few cars that actually came to market with this capability, like the Smart ForTwo, I don’t think the ability to switch body panels was ever really embraced like Smart used to hype it woul. Sure, it does happen, but old Smart marketing used to make it seem like something you could do on a whim, which wasn’t really true.

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Even so, the modularity concept is somehow still appealing and interesting (at least to me) and Fiat seems to be taking it into interesting directions, especially with regard to the interior:

In line with the car’s philosophy, various parts of the interior are created on the “plug and play” principle. The dashboard has small holes into which a multitude of additional components, of any shape and function, can be fitted, thanks to the patented interlocking mounting system, rather like the famous Lego blocks.

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The same approach is found on the door panels, which are totally customisable and inspired by refrigerator doors: with flat surfaces and minimal design, they can be fitted with storage pockets, bottle holders and audio speakers as and when required.

The seats are innovative, too, with a bare back structure made from eco-sustainable materials, while the cushions and head restraints can easily be replaced to change their colours and materials. The front passenger seat can even be substituted with a storage box or child seat if necessary. The rear seats consist of a retractable bench and a back which rotates to make a “trunk” with extraordinary load capacity.

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Also interesting is that the standard configuration of the Centoventi is an open-roof car, and it looks like door-less side panel options are available as well to make a fun beach cruiser-type of open fun car.

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Being modular, there’s a number of roof options, including

...two-colour polycarbonate top, canvas soft top, integrated cargo box and even a roof integrating an innovative solar panel.

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The modularity continues into the technical side of things, with a modular battery pack, which also seems like a very good idea, mostly because the idea of modular battery packs means that those packs have to be removable and replaceable, which would open a lot of battery swapping options instead of charging.

As standard, the car comes with a factory-mounted battery with a range of 100 km. But if a longer range is needed, up to 3 additional batteries, giving an increase of 100 km each, can be purchased or hired. The extra batteries are installed underneath the floor of the car, by the service network. A sliding rail which supports and connects the batteries makes their installation or removal particularly quick and easy. An additional battery, for mounting under the seat, is also available; it can be disconnected and put on charge directly in the user’s home or garage, just like the battery of a modern e-bike. The total range which can be achieved is 500 kilometres.

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So, it looks like there’s a pretty meager baseline range of 62 miles or so with the built-in battery, but it could be expanded up to an impressive 310 miles. This strikes me as a pretty good solution, especially with the inclusion of a small auxiliary battery that can be charged indoors, out of the car.

This version definitely seems like a reinterpretation of the Panda Van

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Really, there’s an awful lot of good ideas packed into this concept, and while I don’t think this thing is even remotely likely to see production, I’d love to see some of these clever ideas and intelligent use of modularity—especially in the dashboard and battery contexts—make it to production in some future Fiat vehicles.

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One clichéd concept car-thing that I don’t think needs to make it to production is the “modern display on the tailgate:”

The large tailgate can accommodate an innovative display that enables Fiat Concept Centoventi to supersede the concept of connectivity to become a real social media device, on which messages can be shared with the outdoor world. When the vehicle is on the move, for obvious reasons of safety, the car will only show the Fiat logo, but once it stops, the driver can switch to “messenger” mode. What’s more, the digital tailgate can easily become an “advertising billboard”, which can be rented out to advertisers, to recoup the cost of parking, for example.

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I don’t think I want my tailgate to be a “social media device,” thanks.

What I do like is that Fiat describes the concept as

“It is the least expensive BEV on the market, partly thanks to the modular set of batteries, as well as being the easiest to clean, repair and service, with lower risk of damage and even lower total cost of ownership.”

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That right there is key for mass EV acceptance. There needs to be an appealing, clever, useful, and affordable EV on the market to really push their numbers to a critical mass where real charging and/or battery-swapping solutions start to make sense at real scale.

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I can think of a lot worse ways for that to happen than with a fun, interesting car like this.