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Average User Score
4.5 ⁄ 5 stars
Based on 12 reviews
2012 FIAT 500 Overview
Overall User Score
Based on 12 reviews
The time has come for the return of FIAT. After a quarter-century’s absence from the U.S. market, the Italian manufacturer has made a bold decision in the way of pumping 50,000 units of its 500 into the Marketplace. After doing quite well in the EU, the little subcompact stands as the root of future entries, with a little help from partner Chrysler.
Designed as a modern interpretation of the old Cinquecento, the FIAT 500 arrives with minimal changes from its European counterpart, mostly in the name of meeting safety standards. Structurally a 3-door, 4-seat hatchback, the 500 fits somewhere between the Smart fortwo and the MINI with regard to dimension.
This is a bold move for FIAT, as the popular MINI has failed to break the 50,000-unit sales mark in the past two years, despite a solid association with rock-solid BMW as opposed to the spotty reputation FIAT has on this side of the pond. Still, the 500 is no MINI, despite the endless comparisons we’re sure to be inundated with, and there’s plenty of room for another quality subcompact in the U.S. market.
Among the changes the 500 received in order to prepare it for U.S. consumption, FIAT has reworked the rear end with a thicker axle and softened spring rate and damper settings for an improved ride. The changes were so well-received that the Euro 500 is slated to incorporate them in the future as well. Our 500 also gets a stouter 1.4-liter engine with a more substantial torque curve to satisfy our notorious speed addiction. At 101 hp you won’t be shocking anyone at the line, but its zippy character is more than enough to get you to 60 mph in about 10 seconds and plenty powerful for around-town driving. Highway manners are a different story, but the 500 was never intended to be a barnstorming behemoth.
Around town the 500 darts and dashes with ease, although it requires a different approach to driving than most American offerings. Momentum is king here, and if you can keep your nerve and avoid stamping on the stout brakes, the car will glide through most turns with ease, losing little speed and exhibiting only mild body roll. Three trim levels are offered – base Pop, upscale Lounge and sporty… ahem… Sport – and the last of the bunch offers the best value and fun factor. With visual changes like more aggressive fascias front and rear, foglights, a rear spoiler and red brake calipers, it stands out from the rest and is the most attractive by far. That it also comes with larger 16-inch alloys versus the 15s fitted to the other trims, as well as a firmer suspension that only makes the 500 more fun to toss around, means the Sport is the winner by a long shot. Considering the more upscale Lounge will force you into a $1,000 6-speed automatic that is nowhere near as fun as the 5-speed manual and a sunroof that seriously hampers headroom that is already at a premium only reinforces the point.
There will be much said about how the Italians handle “style” as well as the Germans style handling, and as stereotypical and limiting as that is, the attention to detail with the 500 is what really makes it shine. Any car with a base price slipping under 16 grand will typically be showered in a disgusting array of hard gray plastics – textured or not. The FIAT has a simple and attractive solution, with a body-color panel covering the expanse of the dash. This small addition makes a big difference in the overall feel of the car, and that’s really what style is all about. The same approach can be seen throughout the car with buttons, levers and other controls that simply feel better than what you should get for the price.
But don’t let this fool you, this is an economy car – it’s just not one of the econoboxes we grew up with in the U.S. Europeans never seem to adhere to the philosophy that a small car needs to be a cheap car, and the 500 reflects this. Seats are comfortable and supportive, although the Sport trim’s firmer suspension pushes the limits of the bolstering. A relatively high seating position keeps you from feeling like you’re driving a toy as well, although anyone over 6 feet will definitely feel cramped up front and positively shoehorned in the rear.
So let’s address the MINI comparison, since we’re doomed to encounter it with increasing frequency in the coming months. The MINI is absolutely faster, in both speed and handling, there’s simply no way around it. However, the FIAT also starts out more than $4,000 cheaper than the MINI, with great fuel economy as well. And style really can’t be ignored here, as the 500 has the fresh edge over the MINI. With a distinct lack of Italian influence in the U.S. automobile market, the 500 just dominates the now 10-year-old MINI, and this is what FIAT and Chrysler are banking on. There are cheaper cars out there, there are more efficient cars out there, and there are faster cars out there. But there are so few Italian cars out there. We’re ready for more solid subcompact offerings, and the FIAT 500 fits the bill nicely. If fashion can win out over function, 50,000 units just might not be so unattainable.
by Michael Perkins
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