'People are calling about it': popemobile gives small Fiat car a boost in stature

The 500L has risen in popularity since Francis stepped into one after landing on US soil – a striking counterpoint to the SUVs of most American notables

It’s surprisingly spacious in the back, with generous leg room and a drinks holder in the central armrest to keep the papal coffee from spilling over the white cassock. The holy father’s favourite liturgical music – or even his own newly released single – can play through the car’s six speakers via Bluetooth. It comes with a built-in navigation system – not that it’s needed when every journey is accompanied by dozens of secret service vehicles, police cars and motorcycle outriders.

This is the Fiat 500L, the small car with new cachet since Pope Francis made it his vehicle of choice on his US trip. Ever since he clambered into its back seat on the tarmac of Washington’s Joint Base Andrews airport on Tuesday to the audible gasps of television commentators, the pope’s little black number has become a talking point across America.

At Manhattan’s Fiat dealership, salesman Giuseppe Salvitti (Italian, of course) showed off an identical car with pride. Rattling through the technical details – 4-cylinder, 1.4 litre turbo engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, optional 17-inch wheels, back-up reversing camera, combined average of 25mpg – he moved smoothly to a more general sales pitch.

“It’s perfect for a travelling businessman, a soccer mom, a family of five. There’s a lot of room in the back, and very good trunk space. It has a top speed of 100-110 mph – though you’re never going to reach that anywhere in America let alone Manhattan,” he said.

The 500L has been on the market for a couple of years and “is selling really well”, Salvitti added. Why had the pope chosen the model for his US trip? “I expect it’s because of the headroom. And it’s comfortable, spacious and reliable. And it’s Italian.”

The papal vehicle is black, but the 500L comes in a choice of 14 colours, including a striking Vatican yellow. Since Tuesday afternoon, Salvitti and his colleagues have seen an increase in inquiries about the vehicle. “People are calling to ask about the popemobile,” he said.

The list price is $28,000, although with a bit of smart negotiation that could come down to around $25,000.

Salvitti has been a Fiat salesman for just four months following a career change after more than 20 years in the hospitality business. “I was fed up and wanted a change, and to follow the third passion in my life. I’ve always loved food, drink and cars.”

And what does he drive? “A Fiat 500 of course, but the smaller one,” he said.


Harriet Sherwood in New York

The GuardianTramp

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