2012 Fiat 500: Big Personality in a Small Package

2012 Fiat 500

At the launch drive of the tiny Fiat 500, my driving companion and I equaled 12 feet 9 inches of height and 450 lb. of weight.

We fit, and we had a bunch of fun driving the car. And our shoulders didn’t touch, and I didn’t even put the seat all the way back.

The 2012 Fiat 500 is a step below the sub-compact segment, only the Smart car is smaller. It’s 139.6-in. long on a wheelbase of 90.6 in. it weighs 2,363 lb. a half a ton less than a NASCAR racing car But it’s a true four-passenger car, with room enough to do what you need a car for.

The Fiat is here to be the small-car brand for Chrysler. This 500 is the first, but won’t be the only model sold. Later this year there will be a convertible version released, and next year the hot-rod Abarth and an all-electric version will hit the streets.

This is a good time for a small car brand to return to America, said Laura Soave, CEO of Fiat America.

She says there’s more diversity in the younger buyers who Fiat hopes to attract, so one-fits-all isn’t a good marketing strategy for attracting them. Also people are downsizing and want something smaller and less expensive.

Although it is very small, there’s plenty of room inside. Surprisingly, the gas mileage isn’t as good as you’d expect in this 2300-lb. car. The manual gets 30 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway for an average of 33 mpg. The automatic costs you, getting 27 mpg in town, 34 mpg on the highway for an average of 30 mpg.

2012 Fiat 500 InteriorThe look is sophisticated, with a cuteness that gives this car as much personality as the Mini and Beetle, both cars that transcend price categories through their coolness. With 14 exterior colors and 14 different interior combinations, this will be a car all about personal style.

Fiat wanted the interior to reflect the design cues of the exterior. There’s a nifty instrument cluster that’s a series of circles within each other, with the outer one being the speedometer, the next in the tachometer, then other information of that. While significantly more useful than the simple instruments in the original, it does retain its spirit, but harkens back to the original Fiat 500.

That car went on sale in 1957 and was as revolutionary a vehicle in Southern Europe as the Mini was in England. It is the car that brought automobile ownership to anyone as well as being a big part of the expansion of the Italian economy in that period.

This new version began as a concept car at the 2004 Geneva Auto Show focused on the original Fiat 500. The car went on sale on July 4, 2007 – 50 years to the day after the original car hit the market. Since then the Fiat 500 has been a hit, selling more than half a million. Now it is the first Fiat product they will sell through Chrysler’s American organization.

But Fiat didn’t just bring a four-year old European car here. There are quite a few changes, many to reflect the market needs here. There are some structural changes in the front and back which help with crash requirements.

More high-strength steel is used in the car – it makes up 55 percent of the frame, and is used to direct energy away from the passenger compartment. In a 40 mph off-set head-on crash test – they had the car there for us to see, there was no intrusion into the passenger compartment. In fact the driver’s side door still opened.

The headlights are different to meet our regulations. There are bigger cup holders and the seats are more “accommodating” for the American passenger. Yes, that means what it sounds like. The seat’s, like Americans, are wider. There’s a driver’s side armrest, something less common in small European cars. The glove box is enclosed for America.

More importantly, there’s a true six-speed automatic transmission, essential in the American market. Otherwise, the standard transmission is a five-speed manual gearbox. The gearing in the manual is adjusted for American driving, and works fine. On the winding roads east of San Diego, as we seemed to weave our way through Border Patrol vehicles, the Fiat was fun to drive.

The automatic is quite a bit better than I expected, considering this is a car with 101 hp. It’s a new gearbox for the car, as the European version doesn’t have the same thing. The gearing of this six-speed is well done for American driving.

2012 Fiat 500 ExteriorThere’s a sport button on the dash which changes the throttle response for both transmissions, but also the shift points on the automatic. There was a noticeable difference between the two, and even flinging the car around the southern California countryside sweeping up and down hills was fun. Not sports car fun, but with enough capability to not be a burden.

The suspension has also been retuned for America’s roads while retaining its small-car nature. Noise, vibration and harshness issues were also addressed. The suspension isn’t a sports suspension, but it is tighter than the American standard.

This isn’t a sports car and doesn’t drive like one. But its suspension does a nice job of keeping everything gathered up in the corners, and the steering, even with the front-wheel drive, is pretty quick and precise. No, you aren’t going to beat Porsches through the curves, but you aren’t going to create traffic jams either.

For now there are three models, the Pop, starting at $15,500 is a manual-transmission-only model, but still comes with air conditioning, power windows and lock and a decent audio system.

The next model is the Sport, at $17,500 which adds a number of features, including 16-in. wheels and sports seats. The Lounge is the top-of-the-line, and includes most everything at $19,500. All the amenities are there, and it comes only with the automatic transmission as well as aluminum wheels and satellite radio.

All models get a four-year, 50,000 mile warranty and the car will compete with the Toyota Yaris, Mini, Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta, although it’s actually an A-platform car, smaller than the sub-compact category of those other vehicles.

Cars will be sold in “studios” in 130 Chrysler dealerships.

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