The new 2012 Fiat 500 is cute, fun to drive and fuel thrifty.
Many young drivers interested in the 500 may never have heard of Fiat’s reputation for selling troublesome cars here decades ago. But then, Italy’s Fiat wasn’t the only troublesome foreign car, and it’s a whole new auto world now. The 500 is built with modern equipment that didn’t exist in Fiat’s spotty old days. when some joked “Fiat” stood for “Fix it again, Tony.”
The 500 is hardly unproven. Chrysler-controlled Fiat says more than 500,000 Fiat 500s have been sold in 80 countries since 2007. The 500 resembles Italy’s revered Cinquecento (500 in Italian), which arrived about a half century ago. Almost four million Cinquecentos were made between 1957 and 1975.
The two-door 500 is a front-drive two-door hatchback. It’s very similar to the European version, but is quieter and has a smoother ride. It’s shorter than a Mini Cooper, but I never got the impression I was in a small car when driving it. That’s partly because it’s reasonably quiet, the front seats slide back a lot and the windshield is large.
Also, while the car’s suspension is choppy when driven on bad roads, its ride is pretty smooth on decent pavement, with wheels pulled to the far corners of the body for a longer wheelbase.
There’s plenty of room up front, but the backseat is tight for anyone but kids or shorter adults. The cargo area has a rather high hatch opening, but is fairly roomy — at least for a small car. And rear seatbacks flip forward and sit reasonably flat to enlarge it.
The 500 comes in three versions: the entry level $15,500 Pop, sportier $17,500 Sport and more luxurious $19,500 Lounge. The names may sound as if they came from Italy, but were thought up in America. Buyers are expected to include young trend setters and aging baby boomers who want a practical, fuel-efficient car that’s fun to drive.
The 500 is especially suited to crowded, import-car-oriented urban like Los Angeles and New York. Even the entry level Pop has air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio, speed control and power windows, door locks and mirrors.
Safety equipment for all 500s includes seven air bags and electronic stability control.
Laura Soave, who heads the Fit brand in North America, feels at this point, at least, most Americans will opt for the Sport version. She says that’s because it doesn’t cost a lot more than the Pop and has “sport-styled seating,” improved sound system, a sport suspension and wider wheels for more responsive handling.
Many may not notice, but the Sport looks a bit different than other 500s with distinctively styled front/rear fascias, new bodyside sill cladding and a roof-mounted rear spoiler.
The Pop and Sport come with a crisp-shifting five-speed manual transmission, which works with a light but long-throw clutch, or a responsive six-speed automatic with a manual-shift feature.
The Lounge is sold only with the automatic and has chromed accents, premium cloth seats, upgraded sound system and a fixed glass roof. A power sunroof is optional for all models.
Coming soon are convertible, turbocharged and electic 500 models.
The 500 is available in 14 colors, and there’s a large number of accessories to personalize the car.
The 500 has a small-but-sophisticated 1.4-liter “MultiAir” four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. Its 101 horsepower is enough to deliver lively in-town performance and decent 65-75 mph passing on highways, partly because the car only weighs 2,363 to 2,434 pounds. It’ll do 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds. That’s not bad, but expect the turbo version to be much faster.
Front cupholders sit low near the underside of the dash, and two rear ones are on the center of the rear floor. The glovebox is large, while door pockets are long but shallow. Sun visors are small.
Steering is fairly quick, with decent road feel, and handling is good enough to make the 500 fun to drive. Pushing a “sport” dashboard button makes the car feel a little more lively. The brake pedal has a reassuring firm action.
Dashboard controls are large and easily reached, although bright sunlight washes out gauge readings. The dash is painted the same color as the 500’s body, as was the case with classic Ferrari dashboards. The driver’s seat has a manual height adjuster that should be especially appreciated by shorter folks, and the steering wheel has a manual tilt feature.
The engine is moderately noisy during fast acceleration and its small size calls for lots of revs and shifting (with the manual) for the best performance. With the manual transmission, fifth gear is strictly for highway cruising. The best passing gear on highways is third, and second gear is best for quick moves in congested traffic.
The tachometer, which measures engine revs, is too small to read quickly. It resides in the speedometer housing.
Estimated fuel economy is 30 mpg in the city and 38 on highways with the manual transmission and 27 and 34 with an automatic transmission. Fiat says 87-octane gasoline is “acceptable,” but that 91-octane is “recommended.” Fuel tank capacity is 10.5 gallons.
The 500’s large doors open wide to make it easy to enter or leave the front seats, and both those seats slide forward to allow easier entry to the rear-seat area.
Italian cars often have some quirky features, and the 500 is no exception. For instance, the end of the hood prop fits in a hole in one of the hood hinges — an awkward setup. Both the interior of the hood and hatch are lined for more cockpit quietness.
The 500 has Italian style, fuel efficiency and practicality. Those still Fiat doubters should know the car also has a four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and four years of unlimited roadside assistance.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read his new and vintage car reviews and interviews with automotive industry leaders, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.