Free the Fiat 500

Jamie Kitman
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Tim Marrs
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It was no surprise in 2009 when large swathes of America's Fourth Estate, Automotive Division, practicing a sort of misguided car nationalism, moaned and groaned about Chrysler's takeover by Fiat. How, they wondered, could an Italian company run an American one -- by government edict no less -- especially after they'd spent so many years dismissing Italian carmakers as hopeless automotive romantics, sharp-suited, socialist incompetents with a flair for snappy shoes, snazzy camshafts, and doing lunch?

You might think differently if you'd actually been paying attention in 2009, as this magazine was, rather than merely rabbiting the self-serving, anti-European critiques that the American industry has spewed in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean for more than half a century.

You would have already observed that, for all its challenges and all that baggage marked "Fix It Again, Tony," Fiat had a bunch of what Chrysler urgently needed in the way of modern small-car technology and management skill.

More difficult for critics to ignore (you would have thought at the time), Fiat was the only qualified suitor, albeit a scruffy one. With Chrysler racing into bankruptcy at warp speed, there was not another viable option in sight. It was no time to get choosy. Although the Obama administration helped make this deal go, it's not like there was another one to be done. It certainly didn't hurt that blending the Fiat and Chrysler families made a kind of genuine business sense.

Sure enough, premium access to Fiat's toolbox has already set right what had been most wrong about Chrysler -- its small cars. The 2013 Dodge Dart is a highly credible machine, being based on an Alfa Romeo platform (Alfa being part of Fiat). That's all the proof one could ask for: the Fi-Chry marriage was worth the trouble. A passel of lower-priced, Alfa-based Jeeps coming soon to replace the gasp-inducingly bad Liberty, Patriot, and Compass will underscore the point, even if the Fiat- and Lancia-badged Chryslers floating around Europe these days don't do much for us. For now, at least, the Pentastar is back.

Chrysler needs big-selling cars here in America and elsewhere. If it is to succeed, it must overcome the deeply scarring events of its recent past. In serial acts of cruelty still inexplicable to ordinary mortals, its former owner Daimler managed to disgrace the brand that it had coveted only a few years earlier. Casting off Chrysler in 2007 to a heartless new parent -- the hedge fund Cerberus Capital Management -- a mere decade after having bought it was bad enough. But Daimler had already committed a bigger crime, bequeathing its American arm a new small car. They called it the Dodge Caliber.

A long-overdue replacement for the compact Neon, the hatchback-only Caliber was a motorized booby prize, an unmitigated stink bomb that marked one of those rare moments in history when a new car is demonstrably worse than the model it replaces.

The Neon was decent enough in its day; the Caliber was anything but. It may have been cheap to build, but it was most assuredly not cheerful to drive, and it was ugly to boot. If the Neon was a 6 on a scale of 10, the Caliber was a negative 2.

How did the people who make Mercedes-Benzes dream up something so appallingly crummy? Aside from baffling us eternally, the Caliber and memories of it, we fear, will bring shame upon Dieter Zetsche's house until he breathes his last. Someone ought to write a book about what they were thinking. (See also: Saturn Ion, c. 2003, for another recent example of history's howling-est backward marches.)

I digress. The key indicator of a merger's wisdom must surely be survival, and Chrysler's strong return to profitability in 2011-12 came just in time to save an ailing Fiat from the recession-driven collapse of its key Italian and European markets. How often do merged firms so soon get to take turns saving each other's life? That's what I call a karmically balanced marriage.

And while you may not have heard about it, what with football season in full swing, not only are a host of Chryslers, Dodges, and Jeeps seriously improved, but the U.S. launch of the first new Fiat sold here since 1983, the 500, has, in one year's time, moved from inconclusive initial liftoff into solid-success-story territory. Although you wouldn't know it by the general press, which still seems to be holding its breath.

Now that the company is selling nearly 4000 a month, the 500 has not only established a beachhead for the Fiat brand, it has further evidenced what the 2002 Mini Cooper decisively proved and what this column has always maintained -- that Americans will happily pay a premium for a small car that's cooler and cuter than the rest. Plus, the Fiat is seven inches shorter than the Mini Cooper, so it parks even easier. If you ask New Yorkers, whose town is now crawling with 500s, that's cool.

During thirteen pleasurable months with one, a verde chiaro 500 Sport that was kindly sent my way by its maker, I found myself in constant awe as my likelihood of finding legal street parking rose an estimated 300 percent, saving me thousands in usurious city-garage fees. But the 500 wasn't just fun to park, it was good to drive, good to be in, and everyday thrifty (I averaged nearly 35 mpg over 12,000 miles).

To be frank, during my time with the 500, I grew to simply not understand the car's critics. It might not be the right car for everyone, but for some it would be nigh on perfect. It never broke, cost $49 to service over the course of a year, felt fine on the highway, and was as tight and rattle-free a year and a month in as it was on the day it arrived. A 500 is not the same value equation as an entry-level Kia, but, make no mistake, it is a value equation.

So let's skip the faint praise and say it: the Italian-designed, Mexican-built Fiat 500 is an American hit. Why can't we just admit it?

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