If a marque is going to make a comeback, it could do much worse than with the 500. Fiat left the United States in 1983 with tears in its reputation as large and numerous as the rust holes in its car bodies.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is a whole new plate of pasta, despite paying homage to an old subcompact that got Italy moving in the wake of World War II the original 500, or Cinquecento (pronounced chink-wee-chen-toe). Yes, the styling is retro, but the amenities are modern. And the kind of American buyers Fiat is now aiming for are too young to remember the earlier departure. Anyway, most Fiats from that era disintegrated long ago.
So the new 500 arrives with a clean slate and around 500,000 ways to be personalized. There are 14 exterior colors, wheels, kick plates, badges, decals and stripes to augment the three trim levelsPop, Sport and Lounge. Under that clamshell hood, though, is just one engine. It’s a 1.4-liter four making 101 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque. Not the kind of numbers that intimidate, but the upside is 30 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway (with the manual transmission).
Actually, there’s some pretty cool, award-winning tech in the engine bay, called MultiAir (Best New Engine of 2010, from the International Engine of the Year panel). The valves are operated pneumatically to facilitate timing with infinite variability. For the full European experience, there’s a manual transmission with five gears to stir. Changes are executed cleanly and sweetly, while the clutch action is smooth yet positive. The two-pedal posse will find the six-speed auto transmission to function more than adequately. And once the 500 gets going, those modest engine output numbers are forgiven and largely forgotten until there’s some overtaking on a steep incline to be done.
Just puttering around town becomes a fun event. Approach a set of S-bends and the car keeps its composure, transitioning from one corner to the next with precision and ease. The steering, although quick, feels somewhat artificial, but with the wheels set as far into the car’s corners as possible and such a short wheelbase, there’s an endearing darty-ness. Naturally, the Sport model, with its specially tuned suspension and smart lightweight alloys, makes the most of this setup, but the Pop model is far from dull. On the flipside of this arrangement, ride quality is still quite comfortable.
All 500 models have a button on the dash marked Sport. Pressing it sharpens the throttle response. In cars with an automatic transmission, it also moves the shift points further up the rev range. It’s pretty subtle, but a fun thing to have. Build quality seems to be perfectly acceptable, certainly nothing like Fiats from the bad old days. Safety qualifications include seven airbags, and in an offset frontal impact at 40 mph, the door on the wrecked side can still open. Noise-insulating foam has been injected into the body, helping to relieve the cabin from the boominess that afflicts many budget-priced small hatchbacks.
Although the Fiat 500 has been out in other parts of the world since 2007 (selling more than 500,000 units and winning awards like 2008 European Car of the Year in the process), the model now on sale in the States is the second generation, which has seen improvements to the suspension, safety features and engine.
Being a subcompact, space is limited. Everything seems to be in seven-eighths scale. The driver’s armrest needs to be a touch longer, the seats a tad larger. Headroom and shoulder room feel restricted, and the two back seats are not that hospitable to grown-ups of average height or taller. Even so, from the cutesy design to the useful trunk space, this car represents an exercise in clever packaging.
Pricing starts at $15,500 for the Pop, $17,500 for the Sport, and $19,500 for the auto-only Lounge. Air conditioning, ABS brakes and keyless entry are standard throughout, while stuff like Bluetooth, USB sockets and navigation is available either in the upper trim levels or within an option package. The car can be bought from dedicated Fiat Studios set within Chrysler dealerships.