One of the happy consequences of Chrysler landing in the arms of the Fiat group — aside from the American company’s continued existence — is that the Fiat 500 is coming to the United States. Since its debut as a concept at the 2004 Geneva auto show, the wee Fiat has been a sensation in Europe. The design, by Fiat & Abarth style director Roberto Giolito, obviously is inspired by the classic Cinquecento that was first introduced in 1957. It packs more style into a smaller package than perhaps any other car on the market and thus lives at the polar opposite of Chrysler’s current domestic small cars.
The 500 will come here in three versions: Pop, Sport, and Lounge. All will have a four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and four years of roadside assistance. The Pop is the least expensive, starting at $15,500. Standard equipment includes A/C, cruise control, and power windows/locks/mirrors; Bluetooth/USB/iPod connectivity is optional, as are a six-speed automatic transmission and a sunroof. The Sport and the Lounge are both a step above. The Sport, at $17,500, includes the connectivity package as well as different seats, a restyled fascia, a sport suspension, and sixteen-inch wheels. The $19,500 Lounge comes with the automatic, auto A/C, and a glass roof; heated leather seats and rear park assist are optional. A dockable TomTom nav unit is optional on Sport and Lounge. The 500’s pricing puts it above a Ford Fiesta, but below a MINI Cooper.
Cute, and retro
The latter is of particular interest because there are several parallels between the Fiat and the Mini. Both are spot-on interpretations of a beloved icon. Both are brands that are essentially starting from scratch in the United States. Both try to make an emotional appeal rather than simply selling on a small car’s traditional virtues.
But beyond that, the two cars diverge. The Fiat is smaller, for instance. Its wheelbase is half a foot shorter and it’s seven inches shorter in length, although it’s four inches taller. While the Mini, like the Honda Fit and the new Ford Fiesta, is a B-segment car, the 500 falls into the A-segment, where its only companion in the U.S. market is the toy-like smart fortwo. Unlike the two-seat Smart, the 500 is an actual four-seater, although anyone who tries to squeeze in back better be less than six feet tall and preferably will be sitting behind front-seat riders who are under six feet as well. Up front, the 500 does a good job of not feeling tiny, thanks to the chair-high seats, fairly big windows, and low dash.
The 500 does take a page from the Mini playbook in its zippy performance, fun-to-drive character, and go-cart handling, although it is not quite as sporty overall as the British car. Handling, body control, and turn-in are commendable. In our earlier drive of a pre-production prototype, the electric power steering was disappointingly light and disconnected-feeling, but the 500’s chief engineer, Fabio DiMuro, tells us that “we’ve changed the half-shaft to improve on-center response and give the impression of more directness.” Their efforts succeeded: the 500’s steering is now very precise, even if it could still use a bit more feel. A sport button on the dash adds a bit of steering effort (and also changes the throttle mapping and the automatic transmission’s shift logic). We’ve been very impressed with the 500’s ride quality over a variety of roads, including the beaten-up pavement in and around NYC and near our editorial offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we’ve driven pre-production-spec 500s; as well as on the smoother roads of San Diego County, where we drove a production-spec car. This is especially true given the car’s ultra-short wheelbase.
What makes it go
The 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder, which is manufactured at a Chrysler plant in Dundee, Michigan, then shipped to the 500’s assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico, makes 101 hp and 97 pound-feet of torque, plenty enough to motivate the roughly 2400-pound Fiat. Off-the-line acceleration is a bit slow, but once you get the revs up the car moves along very well (the torque peak arrives at 4000 rpm). The engine is pretty vocal; a sportier exhaust note to offset that would be welcome. EPA fuel economy figures are 30/38 mpg city/highway for the manual transmission and 27/34 mpg with the automatic. These figures slightly exceed those of the base Mini Cooper but fall slightly short of the figures for the most economical versions of the Ford Fiesta or even the much larger Chevy Cruze.
Fiat 500 buyers have a choice of a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic (except for buyers of the Lounge model, which is offered only with the automatic). Shifters for both are located not on the floor but in a pod that projects out from the dashboard, a surprisingly convenient solution. The manual’s shift action is light but not especially positive; the automatic includes a separate gate for up- and down-shifts but no shift paddles. Shift paddles — and a turbocharged engine — will have to wait until the Abarth version arrives next year. Fiat offers a six-speed manual gearbox in Europe, but chief engineer DiMuro tells us that he was not able to package it in the U.S.-spec 500 without sacrificing a vertical linkage between the horizontal crash-protection beams. He hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll package the six-speed for the Abarth, which arrives in early 2012 with, DiMuro assures us, “much higher” horsepower than the current MultiAir’s 101-hp rating. The Abarth will also feature the predictable upgrades in brakes, suspension, wheels, and seats, and its front fascia will project two inches farther forward to accommodate the turbo.
For now, the 500’s principal appeal is not so much as a gas miser or as a tear-around funster, but as a design object. The exterior styling is just right and will be augmented by an unusually large selection of colors, fourteen in all, as well as various graphics packages. The interior is far more highly styled than one usually sees in this category, with a big swath of body-color trim on the dash; large, upholstered door armrests; off-white switches; and a detailed steering wheel, yet it’s far more logically arranged than the style-over-substance instrument panel of the Mini Cooper. There are also fourteen available interior colors, rather than the typical choice of tan or gray. Fiat says there are more than 500,000 possible ways to spec out a 500.
Small car, big ambition
Fiat hopes to sell 50,000 cars in North America this year between the hardtop and the Cabrio that goes on sale this spring. For its part, Mini, a much more established brand, sold only 45,000 cars annually in the United States in 2009 and 2010, so even with the addition of the 500 Abarth next year and an electric 500 in late 2012, Fiat’s goals are very ambitious. Whatever the volume, we’re glad to see the 500 in America. With sales of the smallest cars in a long-term uptrend, we need more variety in the small-car arena and, in particular, more models that don’t feel like lesser versions of larger cars. That’s certainly the case here.
2012 Fiat 500
Base price: $15,500 (plus destination)
Powertrain: 16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 1.4 liters
Power: 101 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 98 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
EPA Fuel Economy: 30/38 mpg (manual); 27/34 mpg (automatic)
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Beam axle, coil springs
Wheels: 15 x 6.0 in, 16 x 6.5 in (Sport)
Tire size: 185/55R15, 195/45R16XL (Sport)
Wheelbase: 90.6 in
L x W x H: 139.6 x 64.1 x 59.8 in
Curb weight: 2350-2430 lb
Fuel capacity: 10.5 gallons
Cargo capacity: 9.5 cu ft