The all-new 2012 Fiat 500 marks the return of the Fiat brand to North America. Fiat previously fled the US market with its tail between its legs in early 1980s due to “rust and reliability issues”, earning the moniker, “Fix It Again, Tony”. So, why should we be excited about the return of this Italian automaker to American soil? Because the 2012 Fiat 500 is a whole new animal – a cute little sub-compact that looks like a mouse but has the heart of a lion.
According to Fiat’s Chief Executive, Sergio Marchionne, the new 500 underwent “quality and refinement adaptations” for their re-entry to the US market. With Fiat’s purchase of Chrysler last year, the Italian automaker is better positioned to manufacturer and service Fiat vehicles in North America. Will Sergio’s efforts be enough to re-write Fiat’s sketchy history? Chrysler delivered over 3000 of the little cars in August alone. It’s a good start.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is considered a two-door subcompact hatchback, and is the smallest car sold in the US other than the SMART Fortwo. It is available as a hardtop or a “cabrio”, which is Italian for “large fabric sunroof that completely eliminates rear visibility when lowered”. Compared to a Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500 is 6 inches shorter in overall length and 2 inches narrower. It’s also $3,000 cheaper.
The Fiat 500 may be inexpensive, but it is far from cheap. The well-apportioned “Pop” starts at just $16,000 even and includes 15-inch steel wheels and, keyless entry, power windows/locks/seats, heated mirrors, air-conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering, a height-adjustable driver seat, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Convenience package adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Bluetooth phone connectivity and an iPod/USB audio interface. The Bose Premium Audio package adds satellite radio along with an ear-splitting six-speaker BOSE sound system and subwoofer.
The Fiat 500 Sport model starts at $18,000 and includes all of the options from the Convenience and Bose Premium packages (with the exception of Satellite radio, which is available as a separate option). In addition, the Sport gives you 16-inch alloy wheels, a firmer suspension and steering, a tiny little roof spoiler, fog lamps, sport seats, and cloth or vinyl sport upholstery. Heated seats and automatic climate control are available options, but only on the automatic, for some bizarre reason.
The top-level “Lounge” starts at a modest $20,000. It doesn’t have the Sport’s more entertaining suspension and steering, but it does include all the other bells & whistles and gives you the option of rear parking sensors, heated front seats, and leather upholstery worthy of the finest Italian designers. A small sunroof and an integrated TomTom navigation system are optional on both the Sport and the Lounge.
Like Mini and Scion, Fiat offers dealer-installed accessories that allow you to customize your vehicle with fun and useless things like interior ambient lighting, snowboard carriers, racing stripes and other “go fast” graphics and decals. You can even get a microscopic spare tire that mounts underneath the car.
Most importantly, the stylish Fiat 500 comes in 14 designer colors including Mocha Latte, Espresso, Giallo, Azzurro and 3 different shades of Rosso. The special “Gucci Edition” even comes with a matching purse.
The Fun Factor
The 2012 Fiat 500 is powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 101 hp and 98 pound-feet of torque. In our test, the Sport model did 0-60mph in a disappointing 11 seconds. That’s a good 2 ½ seconds slower than the base Mini, and closer to the snooze-worthy Toyota Yaris. Fortunately, Fiat expects to release either the twin-turbo 2 cylinder or the special edition Abarth model (both currently available in Europe) in early 2012. The 500 topped out around 97 mph with a stern warning message that we had “exceeded the allowable speed limit”.
The 500 is front-wheel drive and comes with either a 5 speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission. Both versions are reasonable feisty in the curves, despite the limitations of a fixed rear axel and absent sway bars. The manual is plagued with a squishy clutch that catches high, poorly spaced gear ratios, and the inability to pass anything faster than a Kia Rio on the freeway. The 6-speed automatic, on the other hand, has more consistent gear ratios and is downright peppy. The optional, manual shift mode is the most responsive that I’ve ever driven, topping even the tiptronic transmission from Porsche.
The 500 suffers from the typical factory-installed understeer and has quite a bit of body roll. It does with a magic “Sport” button that tightens the steering and shortens the gear ratios, rendering the “normal” mode completely irrelevant. The electronic stability control system was surprisingly unobtrusive. While flooring the Fiat around a traffic circle, the ESC automatically modulated the power to keep the car under control without putting a damper on the tire-smoking fun.
Where the 500 really shines is in the ride quality. The ergonomic cockpit is astonishingly quiet and comfortable, with just enough easy-to-use buttons and knobs. Most sub-compacts are stiff at best (like the Mini), and spine-jarring at the worst (like the Ford Focus). The little Fiat, on the other hand, seems to have taken driving lessons from Lexus, gliding down the road with the poise of a luxury sedan. Impressive for a vehicle the size of a roller skate.
The Practical Stuff
The 2012 Fiat 500 comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock disc brakes, a driver knee airbag, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. The 500 got the top European safety rating of four stars. The US safety ratings have yet to be released, but Fiat expects to hit the five star mark.
EPA-estimated fuel economy is 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined with the manual transmission. This drops to 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the automatic. Still thrifty, but slightly worse than almost every competitor.
The 500 is brand new, so no quality and reliability data yet exists. Fiat is confident in its new manufacturing processes and offers a 4 year / 50k comprehensive warranty, a 3 year / 36k mile free maintenance program, and 4 year / unlimited mileage roadside assistance, trip interruption coverage, and car rental.
The Bottom Line
The new 2012 Fiat 500 is chic, comfortable and fun to drive. It is also a good value, offering higher quality and more features than one might expect for its economy price tag. You won’t be able to haul a large posse or a ton of cargo, but you will get to where you are going and arrive in style. Especially if you get the matching Gucci purse.