Fiat 500 offers a lot in a small package

Fiat 500 offers a lot in a small package

Fiat 500 2012 featuredFiat has not sold cars in the United States for 27 years. The Italian carmaker may have a steep marketing challenge ahead of it.

Its 2012 Fiat 500 is a subcompact that sells like crazy in Europe.

The 500 is a small car that makes a Mini Cooper look downright stout. The 500 rides on a 90.6-inch wheelbase and is 139.6 inches long, nearly 7 inches shorter in both areas than the boxy Mini. The 500 weighs 2,363 pounds, when equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission, about 200 pounds lighter than a 6-speed manual Mini.

[![2012 Fiat 500 snapshot]( "2012 Fiat 500 snapshot")]( to enlarge.
I tested the Sport model with the 5-speed. So far there is one engine choice, a 1.4-liter I4 MultiAir that creates 101 horsepower.

There’s no denying this is a small car, but some traits may surprise you.

My test car’s fit and finish was equal to what you’d expect in an entry-level subcompact from other makers, yet much more stylish.

Fiat also appears to have invested more in sound deadening and ride quality. While there is some road noise from below the car, wind and engine noise are mild and muffled. The sport suspension also handled most mildly decrepit area streets well. Bigger bumps and concrete pavement seams were more disturbing.

Power from the 101-horsepower engine is disappointing. Acceleration seems fine in first and second gear so you’ll get moving OK, plus the car is so svelte that it isn’t fighting forward movement. But from third through fifth gear you feel the car’s weakness. It cruised fine at 70 mph on the freeway, but it’s not a quick run-up to highway speeds.

Handling, though, is light and quick, so the car is fun to drive. The car is easy to toss around, albeit with some lean in turns.

The Sport also comes with a button you can press that electronically changes the shifting and steering effort to feel a bit heavier and sportier. After using it a few times I left it off as the heavier wheel feel mainly made the car feel heavier when lightness is its virtue.

Braking comes from four discs with ABS and a stability program. The Sport also rides on 16-inch tires and wheels. Standard are 15-inchers on the base Pop model.

Fiat offers three trim levels. The Pop is the base model at $15,500, plus $500 delivery.

[![2012 Fiat 500 exterior]( "2012 Fiat 500 exterior")]( is light and quick, so the car is fun to drive.
Then comes the Sport and slightly more luxurious Lounge (glass roof and 6-speed automatic) at $19,500. All are hatchbacks, but a convertible also is available in the Pop and Lounge trims. The C Pop goes for $19,500 and the C Lounge for $23,500.

The Fiat 500 also is economical when it comes to gas. I got 37.0 mpg in about 60% highway driving while the EPA rates it at 30 mpg city and 38 highway.

The 500’s stylish interior and good execution inside may make it a bigger seller than its size and price might infer.

The front seats are mildly contoured and easy to slide in and out of. While firm, they aren’t hard. There is a pump handle on the side to raise the driver’s seat height and a handle on the inner edge of the seat back to adjust its angle.

Likewise the tilt-only steering wheel always remains at an angle, tilted back instead of more up and down. So you feel a bit like you’re driving a school bus.

The rear seats, which are basically for show, can be folded down to create more cargo room under the hatch. Even before they are flipped down though there is 7 cubic feet of space.

[![Fiat 500 interior]( "Fiat 500 interior")]( in the interior functioned well.
Otherwise everything in the interior functioned well. For those concerned about safety in such a small car, there are seven air bags in the 500.

The test car added the red tri-coat paint for $500, but there are a lot of color choices, including many 1960s retro colors that don’t cost extra. This one also added automatic temperature control with a micron filter for $150, and a power sunroof for $850.

The test vehicle hit $19,500, which seems decent for a small, fun, fuel-efficient car. But if style is less important, then remember there are many small cars on the market now that start in the $16,000 to $18,000 range that also offer more interior and trunk room, and possibly more comfortable rides.

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