Fiat 500 — It's amour

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

 We could see purchasing a 2012 Fiat 500 just to be different, perhaps even envied in some circles. It has that cool factor that comes — rarely — with some new and much-anticipated or much ballyhooed vehicles such as the first New Beetle when it hit the streets more than a decade ago.
But more than that — and there has to be more than that to maintain a long-term relationship, at least long enough to pay off the loan — the Fiat 500 proved to be just downright fun to drive. 
The 500 (and 500c) instantly became more than just four wheels to get us from point A to point B in a rather fuel-efficient manner. Every time out was an enjoyable journey whether a couple miles or a couple hundred miles behind the wheel.
The Fiat has returned after more than a 27-year absence from the American marketplace through the graces of its relationship/ownership with Chrysler. And in its short time here it has drawn plenty of attention.
Perhaps part of the attraction is its Italian roots. Italian design, be it chairs or toasters or cars is fraught with color and style. As a society the Italians have an eye for cool, contemporary and chic. And the 500 extols the virtue of its artful masses not only as a mass market car but as a statement of simple artistry. 
The 500 and its convertible sibling is not a complicated design, but endowed with enough style to bring smiles from those in the car and those who see it pass by. 
Since its debut as a concept at the 2004 Geneva Auto Show, it has been a sensation in Europe. The little car was penned by Roberto Giolito, Fiat style director, and went on sale in 2007, 50 years after the original and much smaller rear-engine Fiat 500 was introduced. 
We recently had the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of one of those early 500s, and it is, indeed, unbelievable diminutive. The new 500 is a giant by comparison. Again the new 500 is small by contemporary standards, even smaller than the Mini Cooper. Even so, we found it comfortable for two adults up front, but very tight for rear passengers.
We did successfully carry three adults on one 60-mile round trip by asking the front-seat passenger to move his seat as close to the dash as possible to give the rear-passenger enough room to survive without serious leg cramps.
For those of you who have not had the opportunity to get up close and personal with a Fiat 500 think of it in these terms — it’s almost two feet shorter than the Volkswagen Beetle and four inches narrower. There are two inches less rear-seat leg room than the VW and shoulder room is three inches shorter.
But on the plus side, front-seat room is acceptably adequate and with the rear seat backs folded flat, the 500 has a useable 30 cubic feet of storage — surprisingly three more feet than the aforementioned VW.
Manufactured in Mexico the Fiat comes in three trim lines that also carry the cachet of cool — Pop, Sport and Lounge (only Pop and Lounge for the convertible). There is a plethora of popular techno features available on all three trims, including a wonderful premium Bose sound system — an option on Pop, but standard on Sport and Lounge. 
All 500s are propelled by a 101-horsepower 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder engine, small by today’s standards, but somehow it works well enough to perform the task at hand, even going uphill. Matched to a six-speed automatic (sport mode recommended) or a five-speed manual there is equally enough gearing to haul around a hefty load on mountain roads or onto high speed highways. Just when you think it can’t do it, it does. But be forewarned, stepping on the gas won’t necessarily get you out of trouble.
That being said, in real-world city driving and even in routine merging situations, the little car performed well enough. For comparison purposes with the manual transmission, the Fiat has been measured from 0 to 60 in a leisurely 9.1 seconds and through the quarter mile in 17.3 seconds at 79 mph. It’s certainly not the slowest vehicle on the road.
Much of the joy of driving the 500 comes from its interior surroundings and the seating position. The driver’s seat is designed to sit its occupant up high — think minivan tall — creating excellent leg room and an improved view of the road ahead.
The dashboard is uncomplicated, but stylish, set off by a panel that runs from door to door in the same color as the car. Our only complaint is with Fiat’s circle-within-a-circle gauge package that wraps a tachometer inside the speedometer surrounding digital temperature and fuel gauges. It looks cutting edge, but it’s hard to get used to.
As for the convertible Fiat designers make it easy for you to look good as it probably has a color to match anything in your wardrobe. With a choice of 14 exterior colors, two interior colors, 12 seat colors and three colors available for the dual-layered soft-top there is bound to be a combination to please your palette.
Without a doubt the smartly crafted convertible top is the star of this show; firstly the power operated top doesn’t infringe on any interior space including the trunk; it slides effortlessly and fairly quickly on exterior rails finding a multitude of open positions based on when to take your finger off the power button. The top stops automatically when it reaches the rear spoiler. You can do this at speeds up to 60-mph. Press the button again and it will fold all the way open. The bugaboo here is that it interferes with to the rear sight lines.
The Pop trim starts at $16,000 including destination charge and comes with a decent amount of standard equipment including keyless entry, full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player. The Sport starts at $18,000 and the Lounge at $20,000. If you choose the convertible the Pop comes in at $20,000 and the Lounge at $24,000.
You might find your interest in the 500 based on fuel economy. Judge for yourself; is 30-mpg city and 38-mpg highway with the 5-speed good enough, or 27/32-mpg with the 6-speed the best you could do?
There are obviously many cars that have better numbers. They are indeed ubiquitous. But are those couple of miles per gallon extra so important that you bleed into the background or is the style and panache of the 500 and the 500 convertible enough to offset what may not be the best gas mileage in the segment?
Perhaps the neatest option available in the Sport and Lounge is a TomTom plug-in navigation system that works with the car’s Bluetooth “Blue&Me” hands free communication system. You never have to fear it being stolen, just pull it out and take it with you when you leave the car.
Here’s a quick round-up: the ride is solid; the 500 is cute and the convertible is fun and charming; there are enough options available to keep anyone happy; standard equipment has everything you probably need. The Fiat comes with traction and stability control, antilock brakes and a full complement of airbags.
It will be interesting to see if these new 500’s can stand the test of time, both in reliability and design. For now, in the moment, they’re Italian and that’s amour.
Base price: $16,000; as driven, $20,400
Engine: 1.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 101 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 98 @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
Length: 139.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,449 pounds
Turning circle: 30.6 feet
Cargo capacity: 30.2 cubic feet
Luggage capacity: 9.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 38 mpg highway, 30 mpg city
0-60: 9.1 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Beetle
The Good:
• Comes with a high cool factor
• Fuel efficient
• Spacious front seating area
• Great panache with or without top
The Bad:
• Cramped for more than two people
The Ugly:
• Limited dealer network