Fiat 500 First Drive: Will Americans Buy It

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You might be wondering why KickingTires, the blog for car buyers, is posting about the subcompact Fiat 500, a car that's not available in the U.S. Well, it will be sold here next year, according to a Bloomberg report, and I had a chance to drive one on a recent trip to the United Kingdom. My early take on it is that it's a fun-to-drive little car in the vein of the Mini Cooper, but perhaps not the model the new Chrysler-Fiat alliance needs first in the U.S.

Fiatfront

One characteristic of the 500 that's very similar to the Cooper is its suspension, which manages to offer decent comfort on bumpy pavement while still delivering a sporting experience when cornering. The 500's steering, though not quite as weighty and engaging as the Cooper's, is quick and in keeping with the car's lively personality.

My 500 was powered by a 1.2-liter four-cylinder gas engine producing 69 hp. It's one of a handful of engines offered in the car overseas, but my guess is that it won't be offered in the States out of concern that customers might deem its relatively low output undesirable. A more likely base engine for U.S.-bound cars is the 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine that's rated at 100 hp, a little less than a Hyundai Accent.

Fiatrearquarter

I drove the 500 on everything from narrow city streets to the Motorway — the U.K.'s version of Interstates — and the 1.2-liter engine offered sprightly acceleration in the city and more modest performance at highway speeds. The engine is paired with a five-speed manual transmission, and the stick's light, precise movement through the gears made for easy shifting. I did have to be diligent about making sure the transmission was in the correct gear in order to keep engine power available.

Fiatinterior

Interior materials quality and construction is pretty good for a small car. It might be a little behind what Volkswagen is doing in terms of the richness of its materials, but the trim is as nice as what you'd see in small cars from Honda and Nissan. More importantly, the interior is much nicer than what Chrysler has been able to muster in its Dodge Caliber hatchback, the smallest car it currently offers.

Fiatseats

I wasn't a big fan of the 500's seats, though. The Lounge trim level I tested had attractive black-and-white checked seat fabric, and the driver's seat was height-adjustable, but the flat backrest wasn't the most comfortable when I drove longer than an hour or so. I could have also used a telescoping steering column; I was sitting fairly far away from the steering wheel with my arms stretched forward once I had positioned myself a comfortable distance from the pedals. Meanwhile, the two-person backseat — while somewhat short on headroom — can handle adult passengers if the front ones are willing to slide their seats forward to offer some extra legroom.

There's no question the 500 will improve Chrysler's small-car offerings in the U.S. It could also make a sales splash among car buyers who want the next new thing. That said, I think its small size will restrict it to niche status, and a niche model isn't what Chrysler needs right now.

What it does need is a small car that can take on the Honda Civic and Mazda3 and sell in high volume. The 500 isn't that car, but there are other, larger Fiat cars, like the Grande Punto and Bravo, that have potential. There's a good chance we'll see them in some form ... eventually. 

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By Mike Hanley | July 28, 2009 | Comments (30)

Comments 

Skinner

Cute little car, looks 1000 times more practical than the so-called Smart car. Trick will be finding the right price point and maintaining high quality / safety. Maybe even cater to the "tuner" crowd.

So far, I like it.

rob

Fiat have world class vision and imagination. Chrysler do not have these qualities. Chrysler need think beyond the Mid West to survive. Their design like the other Detroit companies is crude and unsophisticated. They don't know what they don't know and in the past Detroit was too arrogant to take advice from those who did know.
Let's hope the marriage works out. It may be their last chance.

Bob

I hope Fiat's quality is drastically improved over previous Fiats sold in the US. Otherwise, they're doomed from the start and will take what's left of Chrysler with them.

Nic

Not what I would drive but it fits into what alot of people are wanting these days. And it's trendy looking. Interior looks great too.

SG

Love the car and, believe it to be safe. great styling and wonderfully tasteful. a small quirky car that wouldnt elude "gay" to a guy driving it like the New Beetle would. can't wait to see it AND other Fiats back in the US.

the main thing i want to know about it is gas mileage. what would that be on the 1.4 Litre 4? it better be higher than that of a Saturn SL that i remember giving a great 26/37 i think. pray for great mileage.

Tony

It looks like 50 years old Russian car, only freshly painted. Welcome to past!
Fiats have good manners but reliability is bottom of the list in Europe.
This particular car looks like VW Beetle. If Beetle sale numbers of any indication, you can imagine how well it will sell.
I don't know who is going to buy it. May be, people, who votes for Obamacare these days.

Tony

I addition to my post above I have here the link to support the idea that this car is a ad copy of very old "Russian classic"
http://americandreamcars.com/1968zaporozhets.htm

UK Diesel Driver

Two letters/words: Esse-Esse...

The Fiat 500 Abarth Esse-Esse (they cannot use SS due to negative connotations) has the 1.4T with 160hp. This will give it a bit more speed. And the same engine is available in the slightly larger Punto with 180hp so the 160hp is definitively not the maximum amount you can get out of it.

The car is also available in loads of different colour combination and has loads of decal options as well. It is currently the car to have in the city and more trendy than a Mini. Being a bit smaller it is also easier to park.

It is much different to a Smart as they do not offer very sprightly performance (big understatement) and will only appeal to those that do not want performance.

And with regards to it looking like a Russian motor: please brush up on your automotive history... The Fiat 500 did for the Italians what the beetle for the Germans and the Mini for the British; it made cars affordable. The new one is inspired by the old, but in a cool Mini type way and not a lame new beetle type way. If it looks like an old Russian car it is probably because they bought the right to produce the 500 after Fiat stopped making them.

The 500 is a cool car! And for those of you that prefer an American brand, check out the Ford Ka, it is build on the same floorpan in the same factory in Poland. So, in a very far fetched and roundabout way, Chrysler is making Fords in Europe...

FIAT/ALFA USA

UK Diesel Driver is spot on here...The 500 was built in the 1950s..No car maker is copying designs from a Russian company, no offense.

Tony

FIAT/ALFA USA

Of course, not. Most Russian cars of the past are copies of American, German and Italian designs.
But if you look at this Fiat and the car in the link, you will find a father and the son.

segfault

The chrome and Fiat logo look kind of like an old refrigerator from the 1950s. I like it!

They should've given him a Fiat 500 Abarth.

R.L.

I adore it.

Dave Wuss

This reminds me of GM taking a Korean car and rebadging it. Everyone but them knows it will be failure from the beginning and I have no doubt the same will be true for Chrysler.

Earthling

Hey Bob, you hope that Fiat's quality improves since they last sold cars in the US? You mean Fiat Group cars like the 2010 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano and 2010 Maserati GranTurismo? Or are you ignorantly talking about the last Fiat-branded cars to be sold in the US, the 1982 Fiat Spider 2000 and 1982 Fiat X1/9. Right, that was 28 years ago, over a quarter of a century now. These cars in turn were originally designed in the early 70s, and while they had their electrical woes, they were by no means bad cars. Get a clue.

Tony, you are another moron who needs to get a clue. Original Fiat 500, first produced in 1957. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiat_500 The Russian car you babble about... rip off of the Fiat 500 and Fiat 600, both produced over a decade earlier.

I'm amazed at the utter ignorance on this site visited by CAR enthusiasts? Sure...

ps. who is this Savage guy, savage indeed... when someone writes their title as Dr. and..., Ph.D., it stinks of insecurity. Sorry there Mikey.

Fiat owner

I currently have an 81 Spider and wish I could have brought my X1/9 and 850 spider with me when I moved cross country. The only problems I have ever had with any of the Fiats I have owned were inherited from the previous owners. They all had been abused horribly and not cared for at all. Once the damage from abuse was corrected they were great. Not one of my Fiats has let me down,(read that as very reliable) simple routine maintenance is all they need like any other car. I bought my first one in 1973 and have not bought any other brand of car until I picked up a beater 87 Yugo, which got modified with X1/9 parts.

vince

how stupid can you be? its the old russian piece of junk that's a remake of the previous FIAT 500. when old FIAT factories gor obsolete, they used to be torn down and rebuilt in soviet union or oneo fits satellites.

Anthony Watkins

Tony, that is a Fiat 600 copy, so of course the new car, which is a retro, like the new bug and the new mini, would look like the car it is supposed to look like.
I just hope my little hyundai elantra holds together until the 500 gets here!


x

well the Beetle has been around for 10+ years & the PT Cruiser for 8+ years..so Americans will buy anything!! I'd prefer an Alfa MiTo myself!

Max Reid

Rental car companies can offer this. After all, most of the time, only 1 or 2 passengers travel in rented car.

fiat 500 lover

I rented a Fiat 500 while visiting Italy two years ago, great car, I have been wan'ting one ever since. I hope Chrysler/Fiat starts selling them here in the U.S. It would be nice if they also offer an automatic trans.

LEMUEL HUCKS

I already have my name on the list at the
chrysler dealership here to call me as soon
as the fiat 500 arrives.I will by one in a heartbeat.I owned a 1959 and commuted 260 miles
a day and it only cost a penny a mile to operate
it.Love the little car.The new one i really
like. It is cute. matter a fact my wife wants one to.all of the old Beetle owners will be buying it also.My son will buy one to.

Matt

As a previous owner of several Fiats in the 60's and 70's, I find the family resemblance very well executed, and am very interested in learning more about these cars - especially having just seen one on the road in Southern California. Wow. If they are as good to drive as they are to look at, these things should do quite well indeed with the "aware" part of the car buying public here in the States. Just as long as they have gotten rid of valve adjusting shims. :-)

I CAN'T WAIT!!!! I'm that niche buyer!
I rented Fiat Puntos in Europe with the 1235cc engine and 5 speed...I put over 5,000 miles on both of them combined. Great cars...in town perfect, on the open road quick acceleration is a bit wanting...but that's what the gears are for! The 500 is smaller and lighter than the Punto, so it should be a tad quicker.
Customer satisfaction for the 500 is really high and build quality is very good...they have been on the road in Europe for 2 years now. I'm ready!!!

The ones I rented in Europe gave me 45 mpg on the hwy. and about 35-37 in town.
My '95 Dodge Neon get 30/44, and it has been a very reliable car. I bought it in April of '94...so it's nearly 16 years old and the ONLY thing that has failed, is the A/C compressor bearing. My '05 Neon gets 30/38 and has been flawless.
Since gas went over 75 cents per gal., I've been all about the highest fuel mileage possible...no diesels please!

Hans

@tony, stupix bastxxx. the russian car is a licensed copy of the fiat 600...stupix fuxxer, first learn than post

fiat

I like the fiat 500 its just that when it will eventually come over here in the U.S. the govt will just ruin the car and more than likely the wont let them bring over the diesel version or any of the high fuel miliege cars just like other european cars with better engines overseas thet get phenomenal gas miliege compares to our craptastic U.S. versions that suck

hello , thank´s for the info !!!

GR

I'd rather have a VW Polo 1.4 TDI.

Those seats do look painfully uncomfortable. I think the last time I had seats like that was a rental Corolla a few years ago. It was like a wooden plank covered in fabric.

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