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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 01 2012 Fiat 500 Page 1

First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500

Twenty-seven years ago, Fiat exited the American market. This year, the Italian automaker returns with Europe's favorite city car, the new 500. Richard Truesdell tells us whether it was worth the wait.

More than half a century ago, in 1957, the Fiat Cinquecento (500) helped put Italy on four wheels. In the process, the 500 sold almost four million units before Fiat ended production in 1975. Then, 29 years later at the 2004 Geneva Auto Show, Fiat previewed what would become the Nuova 500, the Trepiuno Concept (see design sidebar starting on the following page). Today, less than two years after forging a trans-Atlantic partnership with Chrysler, Fiat is reintroducing its brand to North America with the 500, a thoroughly reworked version of Europe's most popular city car.

The Americanized 500, built in the former PT Cruiser plant in Toluca, Mexico, started with good bones. The team of Fiat and Chrysler engineers then upgraded its chassis and safety structure, engineered a new twist-beam rear axle, and--most important for American tastes--added a six-speed automatic transmission option, in addition to five- and six-speed manual transmissions. The result is a stylish, economical car that is sure to find favor with the 50,000 customers that Fiat believes will visit its 130 North American showrooms, located predominantly in urban areas.

The Chrysler-Fiat team cut Automotive Traveler loose with the 500 on the roads east of San Diego, a favorite itinerary for new vehicle press launches. My test car was a mid-level Sport model equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and decked out in a sporty shade of yellow called Giallo. The color was reminiscent of a shade popular with a certain brand of Italian sports car produced in a town named Maranello.

The hilly, twisty secondary roads gave me the opportunity to check out on my own whether the 500 is too "Americanized"--as is often the case when European-designed cars are adapted for the U.S. market.

After my time behind the wheel, I can report that the answer is no.

The engineers have struck the proper balance between sportiness and ride comfort. This is due in part to the new rear axle, with its re-tuned bushings with more built-in roll stiffness. (The stiffer rear suspension--300-percent stiffer than its European counterpart--allows for softer bushings with enhanced ride quality without compromising handling.) Combined with a higher front-stabilizer bar rate, the ride-handling balance is actually better than the European version. The result of the tuning and an improved acoustics package and more robust door seals is a quieter cabin with just the right measure of feedback dialed in.

With its 101-horsepower MultiAir 1.4-liter engine, no one will mistake the Fiat 500 for a Ferrari--but that is hardly the point. The goal of the 500 is to make a dash of Italian style affordable for the proletariat. And on that count, it succeeds with a stylish package measuring just 139.6 inches long. Riding on a 90.6-inch wheelbase, the front compartment is spacious. Fiat describes the 500 as having four-passenger capability, but rear-seat legroom would be tight in such a compact package.

Safety did not take a back seat in the 500. In Europe, the Fiat 500 was the first A-segment vehicle to achieve a five-star Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Program) adult-occupant-protection rating. When the 2012 Fiat 500 gets its final North American safety grades, it is expected to reside at the top of its class, the mini-compact A-segment.

The Fiat 500 is equipped with a new four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system featuring redesigned front calipers for what is claimed to be best-in-class brake performance. A revised electronic stability control system is tuned for the Fiat 500's new all-season tires.

Featuring a new air-bag system, the 2012 Fiat 500 offers protection for its passengers to meet and exceed all U.S. regulatory requirements.

Fiat brand head Laura Soave was quick to point out during the pre-drive presentation that, while there are three models, all are well equipped and each is aimed at a distinct market segment.

She does not see this as being a base, mid-level, high-end strategy. Taking into account all the exterior color, interior trim, options, and personalization features offered in the three models, there are about 500,000 different combinations available. It is distinctly possible that no two Fiat 500s will be exactly alike.

The first model offered is the Fiat 500 Pop ($15,500). It is equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, 15-inch steel wheels with chrome-accented wheel covers and all-season tires, seven standard air bags, air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio with auxiliary audio input, power windows, power door locks, power heated mirrors, speed control, and a reconfigurable Electronic Vehicle Information Center with a trip computer and miles-to-empty, average-fuel-economy, and tire-pressure-monitoring display.

The Fiat 500 Sport ($17,500) is next, segmented from the Pop model with a sport-tuned suspension and additional convenience features. This is the one I selected for my test drive, as it is expected to be the most popular model of the 2012 Fiat 500.

It is further distinguished from the Pop model by unique front and rear fascias with larger 'honeycomb' grilles and flared aerodynamic treatment. Wheels are upgraded to 16-inch aluminum wheels with Mineral Gray painted pockets. It also includes new bodyside sill cladding and a liftgate-mounted roof spoiler for a sporty appearance that is further enhanced by the brake calipers painted Performance Red.

Audio receives an upgrade with a high-efficiency Bose Energy Efficient Series audio system with six premium speakers and subwoofer, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, BLUE&ME™ Hands-free Communication technology with iPod/USB port.

The final model in the 500 triad is the 500 Lounge ($19,500)--and this one goes in a decidedly luxury direction.

The premium amenities include a standard six-speed automatic transmission with driver-selectable gear changes, front- and rear-fascia chromed accents, chrome mirror caps, fog lamps, a fixed glass roof, 15-inch aluminum wheels with all-season tires, premium cloth seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and a Sirius satellite radio added to the Sport's BOSE audio system.

Additional standard features in the Fiat 500 Lounge include a security alarm, BLUE&ME Hands-free Bluetooth system. (Thankfully, the 500 was not equipped with the integrated navigation system of the Alfa Romeo MiTo I drove last fall in Italy.)

Inside, the 500 offers 14 color and material combinations, many inspired by the classic simplicity of the historic Cinquecento of the 1960s. Cloth seats, upholstered in a unique split-color effect, help dispel the economy-car effect. Optional premium leather seats are available in traditional black, a brown hide, or ultra-sporty red and deliver a sophisticated look.

The one aspect of the 2012 Fiat 500 I would criticize is the hard plastic door panels. While not looking out of place in a sub-$20,000 car, they do not match up to the rest of the cabin detailing. This is admittedly a minor quibble, but the rest of the interior is so stylish that I wish the designers had invested just a few more dollars to ensure that the door panels measured up to the rest of the cabin.

The chromed "hook" door handle shape, for example, pays homage to the original Cinquecento--while simultaneously integrating modern-day power door locks. A subtle touch, I thought.

With the price of gas on the rise, the 500's EPA numbers of 30 highway/38 city (for the manual) will be attractive. In my mixed-drive route, the 500 delivered 33 m.p.g.--which I found impressive, considering how much I had downshifted to maximize the 98 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, coming at a peak of 4,000 r.p.m.

Since my drive route skirted the U.S.-Mexican border, with Border Patrol cruisers everywhere, I made no attempt to confirm the 500's top speed. Based on the numbers provided, I would expect it to be between 100 and 105 m.p.h.

The 500 is entering an expanding market for small cars, but among entrenched competition. At the lower end of the price spectrum, it is book-ended by the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, both of which seem spartan in comparison. Matching the slightly larger Ford Fiesta on price, but with just two doors and a hatch, the Fiat 500 is not a direct comparison.

I see the Fiat 500 as a premium small car, competing most directly with BMW's MINI--undercutting its most direct competitor by several thousand dollars when comparably equipped.

When viewed in total, the 2012 Fiat 500 is a most welcome addition to the small car segment. It will appeal to a younger demographic and, I suspect, it will be tilted towards women. Fortunately, Fiat is not waiting long to introduce a ragtop version. The convertible version coming this summer will widen its appeal. I suspect that many men will wait about a year until the hot Abarth version arrives. If my drive of the European version in Italy is any indication, it will be well worth the wait.

Fiat, welcome back to America. For those of us who have happy memories of a 124 Spider from high school in the Seventies or Eighties, or maybe an X1/9, it has been too long.

Sidebar: Roberto Giolito, Head of Fiat Style

Modern automobiles are never created in a design vacuum, and the 2012 Fiat 500 is no exception. The genesis of the Fiat 500 came about more than half a decade ago, in the months before the premiere of the Trepiuno Concept at the 2004 Geneva Motor Show. The little Fiat concept car was an immediate hit with the public. Few doubted it was destined for production.

While the design of the 500 was obviously inspired by the original Cinquecento, it was also influenced by the success at the time of two cars: the New Beetle and, even more particularly, the new MINI, which was introduced to the public in 2001.

Much like the New Beetle, the Trepiuno sought to translate the shape of what was a rear-engined design to a modern front-wheel-drive chassis. Although my colleague Robyn Larson McCarthy feels the term "iconic" is often overused, it is appropriate here when speaking of the design of the original Cinquecento. This is what the design team at the Fiat Style Center faced in the months leading up to its Geneva debut.

"Capturing the original Cinquecento's iconic looks and smart packaging in a contemporary, no-nonsense design, the new 2012 Fiat 500 is artfully blended with technical, cultural, and creative aspects in a vehicle that is exactly right for the times," says Roberto Giolito, head of Fiat Style. "Personally I like to think of the Fiat 500 as the automotive equivalent of the iPod--sleek, simple, functional, user-friendly, and inspired."

Translating such a classic, familiar, and well-loved shape is never easy--as evidenced by the design sketches to the left. Like the original Cinquecento, the new 500 features extremely short overhangs, front and rear. The design of the hood on the Trepiuno follows that of the trunk lid of the original Cinquecento, floating above the body form.

The result is a modern interpretation of the classic design--instantly recognizable yet contemporary, all in the same breath. When preparing a concept car for production, the elements that made the design of the concept so striking are frequently lost in translation. As the photos here illustrate, such was not the case with the Trepiuno as it was transformed into the new 500.

Sidebar: Laura Soave, Head of Fiat Brand North America

Beautiful Italian styling combined with timeless functionality, efficient design, and innovative technology--these attributes made the original Fiat Cinquecento a timeless icon. Now, more than 50 years later, the same qualities make the new 500 the right car for our time.

"The Fiat 500 has always been the right car at the right time," says Laura Soave, head of Fiat Brand North America, who notes that a folding-top convertible version is coming before summer. "The new Fiat 500 brings something truly unique to a fast-growing segment in America, delivering Italian-by-design function, value, and efficiency intelligently tailored to our market."

Soave, who reports directly to Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, is the executive responsible for moving the metal--expected to be 50,000 units in 2012.

Vital Statistics

Wheelbase: 90.6 inches

Length: 139.6 inches

Width: 64.1 inches

Height: 59.8 inches

Curb weight: 2,363 pounds

Engine: I4, 1.4-liter SOHC, normally aspirated

Horsepower: 101 horsepower @ 6,500 r.p.m.

Torque: 98 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 r.p.m.

EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 30/38 (manual)

Base price: $15,500 with $825 destination

As-tested price: $17,500 with $825 destination

Also consider: 2011 Ford Fiesta, 2011 Honda Fit, 2011 Hyundai Elantra, 2011 MINI, Toyota Yaris

FiatUSA.com

Automotive Traveler has an extensive collection of vintage Fiat 500 photographs in the Image Gallery.