Despite its small size and light weight, the 500 doesn't feel small from behind the wheel. You'd certainly never call it an econobox-it's more like a dime-size high-end fashion statement. The most obvious clue that you're driving a car so diminutive is the driving position, which keeps your feet close to your body. There's abundant headroom, though, and the relatively high seat and low dash give the driver a great, commanding view of the outside. The rear seats, replete with pill-shaped headrests to match the fronts, are far better to look at than to sit on, but four adults can fit in the 500 in a pinch. And we know how Italians love to pinch.
There are thoughtful and artful details everywhere-from the concentric gauges to the body-colored dash insert. At night, every one of the 500's buttons and displays is illuminated in exactly the same shade of amber. That's a level of detail that the Fiat of our collective memory would never get right-and some of today's best car companies can't manage. If the 500 has one ergonomic foible, it's that the key is painfully difficult to insert. As a Mafia chase car, you'd be better off in something else, lest you wind up getting whacked while fumbling with your ignition key.
Ah, back to the stereotypes. That was a joke, of course, but there is an almost Mafia-like code of silence among the media where Fiat's acquisition of Chrysler is concerned. It seems we're all thinking it, but we're afraid to say it: how is this ever supposed to work? The two companies' products are too different. The markets are too different. No American has ever gotten out of a Fiat Grande Punto and thought, "Man, that'd make a great subcompact Dodge." And no Italian has ever driven a Sebring convertible and thought it would look good parked in front of the Trevi Fountain.
Then there's the 500. Even after fourteen hours behind the wheel in miserable Manhattan traffic, I want one, badly. Almost everyone we spoke to wants one, too, just because of the way it looks. Obviously, there's little chance that the little Fiat will wind up on our country's best-seller list; differences in geography and culture and tastes prevent that. But to the group of people who don't find Pizza Hut's stuffed-crust pepperoni all that appealing, it's nice to know that a thin-crust, Neapolitan, wood-fired pizza Margherita is available.
And even if the whole Chrysler/Fiat thing makes no sense, as these little cars assimilate into mainstream American car culture, we'll look back at this moment as the start of a new Italian car culture-one where Tony doesn't have to fix anything and where we're finally getting a taste of the delicacies that real Italians have been enjoying all along.
2012 Fiat 500
PRICE: $16,000/$19,500 (base/as tested, est.)
ENGINE: 16-valve SOHC I-4
DISPLACEMENT: 1.4 liters (83 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 101 hp @ 6500 rpm
TORQUE: 98 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
STEERING: Electrically assisted, rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Torsion beam, coil springs
BRAKES: Discs, ABS
TIRES: Pirelli Cinturato P7
TIRE SIZE: 195/45HR-16
L x W x H: 139.6 x 64.1 x 59.8 in
WHEELBASE: 90.6 in
TRACK F/R: 55.4/55.0 in WEIGHT: 2350 lb
FUEL MILEAGE: 29/37 mpg (est.)