2012 Fiat 500 Sport
It used to be said that German cars were like a faithful hausfrau, hard-working, dependable and mostly humorless, while Italian cars were like a tempestuous mistress, passionate, volatile and sometimes infuriating.
So if you wanted basic reliability and durability with a bit of boredom, you went with a Volkswagen. If you wanted style and excitement with the spice of anxiety, the choice was a Fiat.
Also, if you had the bucks for an exotic car, most of the choices came from the mistress boudoir: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Alfa Romeo.
Of course, other countries were part of that motoring mosaic as well: Bugatti from France (though founded by an Italian); Aston-Martin, Jaguar and Bentley from Britain, and Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz from Germany. But no nation has been more associated in the public mind with exotics than Italy.Thus it is with anticipation—and perhaps a bit of trepidation from old-timers—that we welcome Fiat back to the United States after an absence of 27 years. Though other models will arrive later, the opening bid is the Fiat 500 subcompact two-door hatchback.
It comes to us courtesy of a deal that rescued Chrysler from automotive oblivion. After an ill-fated subservient association with Mercedes-Benz and bankruptcy death rattles during the recent great recession, Chrysler was adopted into the Fiat family and now appears vital and strong once again.
No discussion of a new Fiat can ignore the brand’s U.S. background. In the latter half of the 20th century, the company delivered stylish, interesting and exciting cars, only to suffer terribly from the scarlet letter of lousy reliability.
If you were handy with mechanicals and in tune with Italian idiosyncrasies, you could live with and even revel in the likes of a Fiat 124 or 850 Spyder. Unfortunately, most owners did not have that skill and the annoyances eventually drove Fiat from these shores.
Over the years, the company’s products have succeeded elsewhere, especially in Europe since the establishment of the European economic union. Fiat folks insist that the company’s cars now boast reliability on a par with the world’s other major manufacturers.
So it is reasonable to approach the 2012 Fiat 500 with an open mind. As with most things Italian, it does have style. The design is a modern interpretation of the original 500 from 1957, when its 27-horsepower rear engine drove the rear wheels, not unlike the Volkswagen Beetle of the era. But it was even tinier than the VW.
The new 500 is larger, but still small by today’s standards. With an overall length of 11 feet 8 inches, it is about half a foot shorter than the Mini Cooper, also a resurrection of an original vest-pocket car from Britain, but now owned and engineered by BMW of Bavaria, Germany.
Given its style and offbeat personality, the Fiat 500 likely will appeal to the same customers as the Mini Cooper, which has been a resounding success in the U.S. Like the Mini, the 500 can be uniquely customized and personalized.
Laura Soave, the chic Michigan-born and Italian-speaking CEO of Fiat North America, says there are half a million ways to accomplish “extreme personalization” of the 500. Moreover, she notes that the 500 has a way lower price tag than its British/German rival. The base 500 starts at $16,000 while the entry-level Mini Cooper has a sticker price of $20,100.Like the Mini Cooper, the new 500 makes little pretense of practicality. If you want that in this category of car, look at the subcompact hatchback Mazda2, Chevrolet Aveo or Ford Fiesta, which offer four doors, back-seat space and room for cargo.
No, the 500’s appeal lies in its Italian styling—though it is being built in Toluca, Mexico—and its sporting flair. It does have a smidgen of practicality because it is a hatchback with fold-down rear seatbacks that more than double the 10-cubic-feet cargo-carrying capability.
But forget putting real people back there. The 500 should be thought of more as a classic “plus-two” with a back seat suitable mainly for melons and munchkins. It is possible to seat an actual human back there as long as the subject has the athletic ability to twist into place and the front seat passengers ram their seats far forward.
But if you don’t carry extra bodies, the 500 suffices nicely. It’s entertaining to drive, despite its economy-oriented 101-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and it delivers superb fuel economy of 27/34 city/highway miles to the gallon even with the six-speed automatic transmission.
Though purists likely will choose the standard five-speed manual gearbox, which has a slick linkage with an uncertain clutch engagement, the automatic likely will be the transmission of choice for the vast majority of American buyers, and it is a nice piece of work. It delivers a good jump off the line and rapid shifts through the gears.
There are three versions: Pop, at $16,000, Sport at $18,000 and Lounge at $20,000. The last comes only with the automatic transmission. All three have a pushbutton “sport” mode that tightens the steering and throttle responses.