Italian Fiat 500 Comes To America

Life was pretty boring at Chrysler dealers after the retro-cool PT Cruiser hit the skids. If you wanted a compact car, well, good luck. There were none to be had, at least in Chrysler showrooms.

On one of their first missions to Italy after discussions began for Fiat to gain control of Chrysler, executives saw the little Italian 500. They wanted it bad. That’s why the sub-compact two-door has made the trip here.

The exterior design is based on the original Cinquecento, built from 1957 to 1975; however its rear engine format has been reversed. The modern 500 has the engine up front and is now front-wheel-drive. Fiat’s stylists did a great job of concealing the powertrain flip by placing the engine behind large round headlamps, a stubby hood, and outline of a grille that all echo the original. Some find the shape as pleasing as a gondola. Others aren’t quite as enamored with the cutesy looks.

The 500’s canted hatchback with chrome-detailed taillamps is a classic touch. Sport editions, like my test car, ride on stylish 16-inch alloys and come dressed up with a rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tips and fog lamps.

Inside, Fiat 500 passengers might feel like a Toyota Yaris snuck out and co-luxuriated with a Ferrari. Painted dash surfaces, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated leather seats, and vast choice of colors make the interior feel like it came from a car costing many multiples more – even if much of it is hard plastic. A Bose audio with USB input is there for all you audiophiles and iPod addicts.

In my mind, there must be a rolling lane through the Italian countryside that’s calling my name. Granted, the 500’s 101-hp 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, connected to a five-speed manual transmission, is not so exotic. A stiff clutch and tiny pedal could give you charley horses, but once mastered, the car revs to redline and can be clicked through the gears with the snap of a wrist. A button puts the car into Sport mode for quicker throttle response. If the engine’s verve doesn’t move you, then maybe you’ll be won over by the excellent 30/38 mpg city/highway fuel economy averages.

Driving the 500 is what sets it apart from the average city car. The steering is precise, the four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are strong, and a full range of electronic controls keeps the car under control. An independent front, twist-beam rear suspension system is engineered with cost in mind, but sport-tuned shock absorbers and springs grasp the road. You can toss the car around without fear of putting it into a ditch. The 500 is also calm, quiet, and comfortable on the highway. It’s not as sporty as a Mini Cooper, but it makes a better long-distance companion than a Smart Fortwo.

It’s easy to hone a passion for Italian goods; I wouldn’t give up my Persol sunglasses for anything. While J-Lo is hocking gussied up Gucci editions of the 500, the best way to experience Italy here is to buy a Fiat 500 and drink gallons of Lavazza coffee while driving it. With an as-tested price of $19,500, the Fiat 500 Sport becomes la voce della ragione, the voice of reason.

2012 FIAT 500 Sport
Four-passenger, FWD Hatch
Powertrain: 101-HP 1.4-litre I4, 5-speed manual transmission
Suspension f/r: Ind/Twist beam
Wheels: 16”/16” alloy f/r
Brakes: Disc fr/rr with ABS
Must-have feature: Style, efficiency
Fuel economy (city/hwy): 30/38 mpg
Manufacturing: Toluca, Mexico
As tested price: $19,500

6 thoughts on “Italian Fiat 500 Comes To America

  1. Great review! I’ve had my 2012 Fiat 500 for about a month and I just love it. I didn’t think it would be so much fun to downsize to a smaller car. I have the 6-speed auto and the car scoots along with enough verve to help me move through traffic and keep my MPG in the low-to-mid 30s. This car is fun to drive and it definitely gets noticed.

  2. I looked at the 500 convertible the other day and though I read lots of great reviews before I went to the dealer, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I saw it. Not sure why, I just couldn’t get excited about the car!

    I have to admit, I didn’t even drive it, but that was because I knew I could never if I bought it stop wondering if I made a mistake. This was for ME though, and this car could be just the ticket for you! : )

  3. My 2012 Jetta Sportwagen TDI (that’s a mouthful, couldn’t this just be called the Golf wagon as it is in the rest of the world seemingly?) was rear ended and is in the shop, so I get to have a Fiat 500 rental!

    It is charming, no doubt about it, bigger than you’d think (I’m 6’0, 380, so I am a big dude) and pretty comfy… except for the weird driving position. It feels like the steering wheel is too far to the left. It’s odd. Now I take into consideration that no car is ever designed for people my size, but this seems more than just me not fitting in the car. It just seems off kilter. Adding to this, the center console that juts out into the cabin to hold the shifter takes up leg room (this reminded me of the first gen Focus, which had this part that dipped from the dashboard that my knee would constantly hit) , so between this and the odd steering wheel placement you sit slightly angled. Again, this car most likely isn’t meant for big chubby bears but it kinda works, for 2 anyway.

    Now having said this, it’s still comfy enough for around town and for the few days that I’ll have it. My JSW feels a lot more solid in that way that VWs can feel, as well as getting better mpg in a more practical package, but the Fiat doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy at all. It’s cute.

    Just check the cabin ergonomics before you buy…

    1. Interesting comment! You know, I didn’t notice it at first when I bought the Fiat, but I do have to shift around a bit to find the best driving position when I get inside. I wasn’t sure why that was, but I’m curious to check out the steering wheel placement. Once I’m comfortably situated in the car, I’m fine. I’ve had to get used to resting my knee against the console, but I do like how the gear shift is higher in the dash. Overall, I still like the car after almost 15,000 miles.

  4. I had some of my skinny friends sit in the 500 and they noticed the steering wheel being off center from the seat too… so not just me!

    I also noticed I’m averaging 27mpg. 27??????? In San Francisco I am finding myself winding the engine up a lot to make it up hills. It sounds good, is peppy and fun, but that makes the economy blow. My JSW TDI is averaging 35 and only has 2000 miles. My experience tells me that number will go up after 5000 to 10000 miles or so. The JSW is also a bigger car that is more practical, and where the steering wheel is doesn’t seem like an odd after thought.

    Even with all this, the 500 is just so cute.

  5. I’m content with my 2013 500 Sport. It’s a commuter first and has plenty of room for two. You might get another full size adult in the back, but they pretty much have to be athletic to get in and out of the car. Plenty of cargo space for groceries, really haven’t tested it with a really bulky item. I would think it could handle something like an old school tube style 26″ tv ? I used to have a 1st generation RX-7, also a hatchback Colt from the 1980’s. 2 door cars with about the same capacity. In a pinch they move things around by folding down seats, reclining the front passenger seat and so on. But for the most part they are 1 person commuters, weekend couple econo boxes. Phagg car ? Not any more than any of the Japanese eco-boxes. Get what you want and drive it until it won’t run any more ?

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