2012 Fiat 500: First Drive

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The ramp-up to the Fiat 500 has been years in the making. Fiat released the car in Europe in 2007, and speculation of its arrival came months before the Italian automaker’s June 2009 acquisition of a then-moribund Chrysler. A U.S.-bound 500 became official in 2010, and Chrysler priced it by year’s end. Now, in early 2011, we’ve driven the car that hits showrooms next month.

It was worth the wait.

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The 500 packs fresh styling, decent value and handling dynamics that come close to the venerable Mini Cooper’s.
 
Styled after the original rear-engine 1957 Cinquecento — “500” in Italian — the front-engine 500 bears the same beady headlights and parking lamps. Though not as affable as the Mini, the 500’s bubble-car profile and pencil-moustache expression promise distinction. That’s a considerable feat, considering the car’s small size will make it hard to see, period. Measuring just short of 140 inches long, the 500 is 7 inches short of a Cooper, though it’s a foot-plus longer than a Smart ForTwo or Scion’s forthcoming iQ, both legitimate minicars. The small footprint and a 30.6-foot turning circle (narrower than the Mini and just 1.8 feet wider than the ForTwo) should cement the Fiat’s urban credentials.
 
Though Fiat’s 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder makes a modest 101 horsepower, it moves the sub-2,500-pound hatchback easily enough. The 500 has adequate power from a standstill, and highway passing at 70 mph is workable, even with the five-speed manual in 5th gear. The optional six-speed automatic, meanwhile, serves up smooth upshifts that expose the unconventional automatics in the ForTwo and Ford Fiesta as clunky alternatives. Fiat’s automatic kicks down to lower gears fast enough, with a Sport mode that calls up downshifts somewhat sooner.
 
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Interstate trips are manageable, but you won’t want to make a regular habit of them. Either suspension — the base setup in Pop and Lounge trims, or the sport-tuned suspension in the 500 Sport — settles into a firm rhythm on the highway, and the engine churns along at low rpm with a sort of agricultural coarseness. Highway road and wind noise are ever-present, and the optional moonroof’s mesh sunscreen offers zilch for noise abatement.
 
Driving fun is where the 500 excels. Find a sweeping corner, and the car’s nose admirably refuses to push wide. The 500 is as drift-happy as the Cooper, with steering that’s nearly as quick-witted. I only wish the car cornered flatter. Fiat marketing manager Stephane Cloutier said you sit a couple of inches higher in the 500 than in a Cooper, and it shows: Pitch the car hard into a corner, and even the Sport model leans noticeably.
 
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The seats could use more lateral support for such maneuvers, and the backrests didn’t conform well to my back over my daylong stretch in the car. Cabin quality is decent, with appealing off-white paneling around major controls. (It can also come in a more conventional black.) The backseat and trunk area — the latter with a smallish 9.5 cubic feet — aren’t good for much more than groceries, and occasional hapless passengers.
 
We drove a European 500 last summer, and editor Mike Hanley suspected the car would have only niche potential. My inclination is that’s still the case. A $15,500 starting price notwithstanding, I’m skeptical all the shoppers trolling Honda, Toyota and Ford showrooms for a cheap set of wheels will rush headlong to a Fiat showroom. The car’s limited utility, so-so gas mileage (low 30s combined, Fiat reckons) and premium fuel recommendation will all hamstring its mainstream potential. But Fiat has built a legitimate Mini alternative for thousands less, and shoppers willing to trade absolute utility for creative styling and driving fun should give the car a try. For a brand looking to get back into a market it left 27 years ago, that could signal as good a start as any.
 
Stay tuned for a full review. For now, see the photos below.

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By Kelsey Mays | January 28, 2011 | Comments (19)

Comments 

Uk Diesel Driver

Interesting comments about the engine. Fiat Multi-Air has received really good press and universal praise in the EU. I find it strange that this very frugal engine does not get better mileage then all the other manufacturers as the Multi-Air is a real breakthrough in engine design...

Amuro Ray

Would u categorize Fiat as a semi-luxury brand (somewhere on par as Mini/BMW in terms of offerings/quality), or a value brand like the Toyota/Honda/Nissan/etc, as what Fiat is in Europe, KM?

Amuro,

The car's appointments and styling suggest semi-luxury, closer to Mini and Volkswagen than Honda and Toyota. Fiat, however, characterizes its competition as the non-luxury brands as well.

-Kelsey

surf58

@UK Diesel Driver
The MultiAir engine – at least the TwinAir 2-cylinder – may have earned good numbers on the EU cycle but the reviews I've seen show it gets significantly less (around 30 percent less) mileage in real-world driving. I think that suggests the way the EPA tests cars is closer to real driving than the EU's test.

Even so, I can't wait to try the Fiat. I love the Mini but it's become quite expensive and the controls are maddening. For less than $20k, this looks impressive. But I'd wait to try an Abarth, personally.

cody

this is definitely a stylish little car, especially the interior. they should put an extra cog in the manual. i hope it sells well. we could use more small cars on the road....maybe start a trend.

Amuro Ray

@Surf58,

I doubt that it's the testing method. If you look into the owner's manual of any vehicle, you really should take a look at what octane rating the tests were based on (from the manufacturers).

EPA will most likely test car using regular gasoline when it's not necessary to use Premium (sorry, I haven't had the time to confirm this), which will result in lower mileage. Besides, Europe has a different type of gasoline blend than the US as well, which affects mileage too.

Nic

I like the single bezel gauge cluster.

JM

quite honestly, i dont know if this vehicle will become a Mini alternative. the Mini is small, but this is significantly smaller and may be too small for alot of people in this country. as an alternative to the Smart ForTwo though, i can see this being great competition.

Rich

I feel luke warm about this car. Interior plastics look cheap. Center instrument cluster looks like its trying too hard to be upscale (is that a font left over from the old Chrysler New Yorker). Wheels look unbelievable cheap and chintzy on the red car above. Overall, this is lacking the luxury and aspirational details that the MINI Cooper does so well.

Amuro Ray

I, too, don't think that it's comparable to the Mini, based on size and prestige of the brand. A list of vehicles I can think of in terms of both sizes and brand value:

Toyota Yaris
VW Bug
Hyundai Accent

500 may have a more upscale interior in some cases, but that doesn't mean that you can't have the same thing with these 3 (they may not be offered in the US, but they are available in other countries!).

Mark

I think they blew the dashboard controls as having no knobs sucks especially when it comes to the radio. I'd buy a used Mini before a 500.

Zack

Some people may buy this to be different, but logic dictates that a Hyundai Elantra that costs less than the base price of the 500 is twice the car and gets 40 mpg on the highway, compared to 34 for the 500 with automatic. The 500 should be priced at no more than $9,000 when you consider what you get and its questionable reliability.

Ben

I agree but then again Chevy is trying to sell the Cruz LTZ for an unbelievably inflated price of $27,000 so why not Fiat too! Maybe the Fiat can join the Cruz at Avis.

jerseyjoe

It amazes me that people can judge cheapness of plastic and reliability from a photo.

Amuro Ray

Reliability can be found online for Fiat, and you'll be surprised where Fiat is for the last few years (hint - not good...REALLY not good).

Tony

Whatever you say, guys and girls, reliability, luxury...
What luxury? What reliability?
Fiat is the bottom in Europe. It is next to Renault.
What Luxury? Luxury is BMW 750, Lexus LS.. Fiat 500 is a car for people with no money.

Now... If people ever learned anything, buying an Italian car is simply not a smart decision. Of course, everybody is free to buy what they like. But if you really mind how much this car will REALLY cost you, then you should stay away from FIAT.

Uk Diesel Driver

1- Interior size; I am 17 stone and 6'6" and I fit in the front. No one can sit behind me, but that isn't a surprise... As long as you stay inthe front you should be OK.

2- Reliability; FIAT is not the most reliable but, then again, they are not the most unreliable any more either. This particular vehicle shares the chassis and the EU location of assembly with the Ford Ka.

3- Competitors; It is that funky it can hold it's own against the Mini (my personal opinion) and it is definitely a cut above the Yaris in design and driving fun. The Yaris is for elderly people! The bug and accent are well bigger than this...

4- Fuel use; From personal experience I know that the real world fuel usage for every car differs wildly from the mileage obtained in the EU test. I find out the hard way every time I fill up ($8.07 for a US gallon of Diesel in the UK)... Thing is with all these small petrol engines that if you rev them to get the speed out, they will use more fuel. I have not driven a multi-air as no one has one at work, but I presume the same applies: rev it hard and you get less mileage. Fact is though that the car with the biggest gap between real world and test mileage at this moment in time in the statistics kept by leasing firms is the Prius.

Fiat: the italian car :D

Matt

I haven't test-driven one yet, but I checked one out at the SF Auto Show. This car is definitely well designed and build quality is excellent. It does not look or feel cheap at all. The Mini has been around for 10 years and to be honest, it is getting quite boring. It's nice to see a new, stylish, small car hit the road, especially one that doesn't look like all the rest.

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