While the FIAT brand quit the U.S. market in the mid 1980's, their reputation for building fun, if not always reliable, cars remains. Now in this century, their injection of cash into the Chrysler Group not only helped keep the Pentastar alive, but it actually improved Chrysler quality as well. Now, FIAT is injecting some of their Italian style and fun into the blossoming American subcompact car market with the hard-to-miss 500.
While the North American-assembled 2012 Fiat 500 may be a big deal, its size is anything but. Its length is 6 inches shorter and width 2-inches narrower than a MINI Cooper Hardtop. Now that's small in any language. Not small is the amount of style packed into this tiny package. It's been said that Italians don't drive ugly cars. And while we're not sure we fully agree, there's no denying the bulldog-nosed 500 is funky and Euro-chic.
Large, MINI-like round headlights dominate the front, with a prominent air intake down below. From the side, the look is more Beetle than MINI, with a steeply raked windshield and sloping rear hatch and very little overhang.There's more of a rear fascia than rear bumper as bubble taillights add a nice touch. The rear glass spans the entire hatch, making it all look seamless.
Our test car, a mid-level Sport model, included fog lights, 16-inch aluminum wheels, red brake calipers, rocker moldings, rear spoiler, and chrome exhaust tip. An optional glass roof panel reminds us of cloth top Cinquecento's of yore.
The Sport model also gains a firmer suspension with stiffer springs and shocks. It makes the 500 a delight to throw through our slalom course. Steering is very quick, though it doesn't offer much feel.
As speeds increase, the fun factor stays constant. With an overall light feel, and despite a track narrower than a Mini, the 500 remains very solid. Stability Control can be turned off, but will still intervene when you're headed for trouble. Standard transmission is a 5-speed manual with a 6-speed automatic optional.
We put our manual 500 to good use at the track with a 0-60 run of 9.4 seconds. It's not exactly a rocket off the line, but launching is easy, and first and second gears go by fairly quickly. The clutch and shifter have a nice, connected feel. It's when you reach the eighth mile and have to shift into third where things almost come to a halt. RPM's drop way off, and you finish out the quarter mile searching for some power, taking 17.8 seconds at only 80 miles per hour.
Those leisurely numbers come courtesy of a 1.4 liter inline-4 with only 101 horsepower and 98 lb/ft of torque. With numbers that low, you expect high numbers when it comes to fuel economy. So we were a bit disappointed with the Government Fuel Economy Ratings of only 30-City and 38-Highway, and with our test loop of 33.6 miles per gallon of regular.
There's not much to be disappointed with the inside however, where you'll find a surprising amount of room up front. There's an airy feel, with plenty of head and shoulder room. The overall look is very contemporary; a mostly flat dash with glossy body paint for color, a very grabable steering wheel, and controls that are a mix of old-world switchgear and modern buttons. Seats are plenty big and comfortable, but all adjustments are manual and scattered about.
Gauges are also a classic, nouveau combo with a big digital readout, surrounded by a tachometer, surrounded by a speedometer. It's very cool and watch-like, and right in front of the driver. Rear seat room is there, but just barely. Front seats have to be moved way forward for any leg room at all. So consider the 500 more of an Italian 2 plus 2 with the rear for small kids and luggage. As for storage, the hatch opens wide to 9.5 cubic-feet of cargo. You can fold the 50/50 rear seats for more space, but again you have to move the front seats fairly far forward before they will lay flat.
Small cars with short wheelbases are usually not known for a plush ride, and indeed the 500 is a bit on the firm side, even on the standard Pop model. Still, the strut front, twist beam rear suspension does a good job of absorbing most impacts without distress, about on par with the Mini.
Engaging Sport mode does quicken throttle response and tightens up the electric power steering, giving the 500 an even zippier feel. And the price is pretty zippy. The FIAT 500 Pop starts at $16,000, our Sport at 18,000, and the top range Lounge automatic at 20,000, or about the same as a base Mini Cooper.
While some might call an Italian car, built by Chrysler, in Mexico, a trifecta of potential trouble, we find the Fiat 500, especially in Sport trim, a fun little runabout that offers good comfort and acceptable economy, while showing loads of style for both your daily grind and weekend adventures. FIAT, welcome back!
Engine: 1.4 liter inline-4
Torque: 98 Lb Feet
0-60 mph: 9.4 seconds
1/4 mile: 17.8 seconds @ 80 mph
EPA: 30 mpg city/ 38 mpg highway
Mixed Loop: 33.6 mpg