2012 FIAT 500

2012 FIAT 500

Petite, Italian-style Fiat 500 makes a big impression for a small price

2012 Fiat 500 Test Drive - In 1957, Italian automaker Fiat introduced a tiny transportation module called Cinquecento (translates to 500). With its little engine tucked between its rear wheels, it was cute, fuel efficient, fairly fun to drive and easy to park, since it was roughly the size of an NBA center's tennis shoe. You could wedge a family of four into it, if the kids were small, and it would get you from A to B.

Like "peoples' car" rivals from Germany (VW Beetle), France (Renault Dauphine) and others, it was also affordable for regular folks to purchase and operate. Almost four million copies of that first Fiat 500 were built and sold before it was discontinued in 1975.

Two years later, a more technically sophisticated rival from Great Britain hit the market. Unlike others, it had its engine mounted transversely (sideways) up front, driving its front wheels, for more stable handling and a much more efficient package of interior room in a very small exterior size. Called the Mini, it proved highly popular and was sold all over the world, and that innovative transverse-front-engine package motivates virtually every modern minicar and the vast majority of today's cars, minivans and crossovers.

After a long absence, that once-legendary Mini was reincarnated (by new owner BMW) for 2002, slightly larger, better and quicker, especially turbocharged Mini Cooper models. And it has earned surprisingly strong sales and a bit of a cult following as a rare exception to the rule that Americans won't pay much for little cars.

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The New 500

And now comes the modern reincarnation of that oh-so-Italian Fiat 500 to challenge the mighty Mini. Launched in Europe in 2007, the 2012 Fiat 500 is also thankfully larger and much better than the original and features a modern transverse-front-engine powertrain. It has sold to the tune of more than 500,000 units so far in 80-plus countries and has earned 60 international awards, including 2008 European Car of the Year.

Fiat returns to the U.S. after a 27-year hiatus thanks to its partnership with (and part ownership of) post-bankruptcy Chrysler, so the U.S. 500 can be found at selected major metro-area Chrysler dealers who have built separate Fiat "studios." For starters, there will be three U.S. models in one 3-door hatch body style.

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Pop, Sport, Lounge

The $15,500 5-speed-manual Pop comes with air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with aux input, power windows, locks and heated mirrors, speed control, a reconfigurable Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) with trip computer and seven airbags.

The $17,500 Sport adds red performance brake calipers inside 16-in. alloy wheels, a stiffer sport-tuned suspension, special front and rear fascias with honeycomb grilles, flared aero cladding, a rear roof spoiler, a chrome exhaust tip, fog lamps, sport seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with controls for its Bose premium audio and what Fiat calls "Blue&Me" hands-free communication technology with a USB port and iPod control capability.

The $19,500 Lounge (yes, Lounge) offers all that plus a 6-speed automatic (with manual shift capability), a fixed glass roof, SIRIUS Satellite Radio and chrome exterior accents-but minus (of course) the Sport's special fascias, cladding and other specific features.

A ragtop Cabriolet will arrive in time for warm weather followed by a higher-performance (Mini-Cooper-rival) Abarth model and a battery electric 500 in 2012.

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Style and Comfort

Besides being priced some $4,000 lower (comparably equipped), this 2012 Fiat 500 touts some advantages over the well-established Mini. Among them are "modern Italian design," says Fiat brand chief Laura Soave. Style director Roberto Giolito calls it "a simple, sleek and honest one-box design with proportions altered to accommodate moving the engine up front from its rear position in the original." Styling is subjective, but we think it's at least as fetching as the Mini. Call it cute bordering on sexy in the Sport version.

Except for its cramped-for-adults backseat, it really shines inside. Where the Mini's quirky instruments and controls can be annoying, this little Fiat's cabin is designed and laid out for pleasing appearance as well as user-friendliness. Its perceived craftsmanship and use of materials is far better, and we especially like the space-efficient single coaxial dial with its tachometer inside the speedometer and fuel, temperature and trip info inside that.

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Performance and Handling

The 500's 1.4-liter DOHC 16-valve variable-valve-timing "Multi-Air" four spins out a willing 101 horses, which doesn't sound like much until you drive it. Remember, this little roller skate weighs less than 2,400 lbs. with its manual gearbox. "Multi-Air" is an innovative and highly effective new Fiat-invented technology that uses high-pressure hydraulics to precisely control intake air quantity and timing for an optimum balance of performance and fuel efficiency. EPA ratings are 30 mpg city, 38 highway with the manual and 27/34 mpg with the automatic transmission, according to chief engineer Fabio DiMuro.

While the Mini is known for glued-to-the-road "go-kart" handling, it also punishes with go-kart ride. In our daylong test drive on freeways, urban streets and twisty mountain roads, we found the 500 far smoother in ride and comparable in handling. The Pop and Lounge lean toward comfy without sacrificing agility, while the Sport (as expected) tackles turns with more athleticism without beating you up on rougher surfaces. All the time, the little engine that could pulled eagerly at nearly any speed thanks to its fairly strong (98 lb.-ft.) mid-range torque.

Soave believes that Americans are willing to downsize but not to give up favorite features and functions. "We have the perfect package: large-car features in a smaller car," she says, adding that the U.S. small-car segment is expected to double by 2014.

If we were in the market for a car this size, this cute (okay, Italian sexy) and this fun to drive, we would certainly give this perky little 2012 Fiat 500 a serious look. www.fiatusa.com

2012 Fiat 500 first drive
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