It’s cute, agile, thrifty and has landed on our shores after a 27-year hiatus. The 2012 Fiat 500 has arrived in 124 dedicated dealers’ showrooms with a total of 150 scheduled to open before year-end.
This little Italian subcompact debuted in 1957 and is being aimed at women, young men, Gen-Xers, Millenials and Baby Boomers who are looking for a economical commuter that’s fun to drive. But it comes to these shores with lots of competition from Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, VWs new Beetle, Chevy’s 2012 Spark and others. Aside from those, I see the Fiat 500 as slotting between the Smart and Mini Cooper coupe insofar as power, handling, ride and price is concerned.
The Fiat 500, which also comes in a 500C convertible (and an electric version rumored for 2013), is offered in base Pop, Sport and top-line Lounge models plus a Gucci version that is decked out accordingly and appropriate for Jennifer Lopez who I’m sure you’ve seen on Fiat’s TV commercials.
The differences between the models are mainly trim, upgraded audio and amenities with the Sport model I tested getting 16-inch wheels, red brake calipers, a sport suspension that includes modified springs, shocks, stiffer steering, exhaust tuning, a firmer ride and more responsive handling and more.
As such, the 500 exhibited firm handling and a stiff ride whereupon rough road surfaces easily transmitted into the cabin of this two-door hatchback. This is understandable since the 500 rides on a short wheelbase of 90.6 inches with an overall length of just 139.6 inches (it’s 6-inches shorter than the Mini coupe). Hence, the stout ride. Handling was good and it “hung tough” in sharp turns taken at speed and Allentown’s Rte. 22 cloverleaves. And parking was a breeze, especially in tight spots.
Power was adequate but no neck jerker. Fiat’s little 1.4-liter, 101-hp four-cylinder (30 city, 38 highway mpg) that produces a mere 98 lb/ft of torque, is spirited but requires a long hole in rush hour traffic for safe merging and to avoid a rear-end collision. My tester came with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, which was athletic in first gear, but torque dropped off in second. A 6-speed auto is a $1000 option on all but the Lounge.
Interestingly, the 1.4 with MultiAir, a breathing system that supposedly improves power 10 percent and reduces emissions 10 percent, carries a relatively high 10.8:1 compression ratio.
In the cabin, it’s been called retro-adorable and very similar to that in the Mini Cooper with its metallic-look dash and circular gauges with speedo and tach embedded within each. Even the gearshift pod is roundish. Cloth seating is Euro firm and was done in a two-tone brown that contrasted with the yellow exterior paint job on my test car. The seat cloth was of the heavy duty, longwearing quality and the seats offered excellent under thigh support.
The back seat is mainly for youngsters or two short statured adults for very short hops as leg, head and shoulder room is tight, as is ingress/egress. The cargo area behind the rear seats measures 19-inches deep, 34 wide or EPA rated at 9.5 cubic feet. Two golf bags could be stowed when folding the seatbacks. Otherwise, the space can accommodate a few grocery bags or a medium duffel with the seats up.
There were a few quirks in the 500. For one, the rear window wiper motor was noticeably noisy. It sounded like those in cars of the 50s. And the passenger seat wouldn’t slide forward, only the driver’s did. Perhaps folks in Italy only enter rear seats from the driver’s side.
During the week I had the 500, it grabbed a lot of eyes. That told me the 500 has a special appeal and does not possess the look of others in this class.
Loaded with a host of normal amenities and features, the base price of $17,500 rose to $19,200 after a $350 charge for Sirius radio, security alarm and two-tone seats; $850 for a power sunroof; and a delivery of $580. The top-line Lounge starts at $19,995 and the base Pop at $15,995.
To test drive a Fiat 500 stop by the brand new Fiat of Lehigh Valley at 150 Palmer Park Mall, Easton. And to automatically receive auto news and reviews from Nick Hromiak, click on the “Subscribe” box atop this page.