"What the (heck) is that?" the driver of a Prius clearly mouths as his head pivots to follow our 2012 Fiat 500 Sport painted in a sharp metallic "Argento." He looks absolutely befuddled, obviously unable to identify the odd little car that's just puttered by in the Carl's Jr. parking lot.
It's easy to understand his confusion. Brand-new cars come out all the time, but a new car brand is something that happens only once in an azzurra moon. Of course, Fiat is not a new brand, but given that it hasn't sold cars in the U.S. since 1983, it might as well be.
As a four-seat subcompact car inspired by the styling of a 1960s automotive icon of the same name, the 500 (Cinquecento) has been a wildly successful car in Europe. If that sounds like Mini version 2.0, you'd be right, though the tiny 500 is actually smaller than its British rival. If the 500 can spark even a portion of the popular vigor that Mini has enjoyed for nearly a decade, both Fiat and the select Chrysler dealers that will sell the 500 will be positively overjoyed.
Potential buyers of the 2012 Fiat 500 shall also be pleased to know that this little car is more than just an adorable face. It's fun to drive, feels far bigger from behind the wheel than it actually is, and has a much cheaper price than a Mini Cooper.
Unfortunately, the 500 is still an Italian car built by Chrysler in the same Mexico factory that built the K-Car, Neon and PT Cruiser. That doesn't sound like a recipe for bulletproof reliability and no matter how solidly built our 500 Sport test car felt, such dubious origin will hang like a black cloud over its large glass sunroof until reports from early adopters trickle in.
Therefore, you'll have to be a bit brave to be one of those early adopters. You'll also have to be prepared to answer the question, "What the (heck) is that?"
A 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder doesn't sound like a lot of motor, and it isn't. Going from a standstill to 60 mph in 10.8 seconds doesn't sound quick, and it isn't. But when you take control of this inline-4 with the long-throw but accurate shift linkage of the five-speed manual gearbox, there is an eagerness to this little engine that belies its modest statistics. While a Mazda 2 sounds like you're wringing the life out of it whenever you try to go quickly, the 500 feels like a willing partner, perfectly happy to work hard as it bellows a pleasingly throaty mechanical song. Yet it's also agreeably muted at highway speeds, with none of the high-pitched droning of many underpowered subcompacts.
So it's not quick — at least not in a straight line — but around corners, the 2012 Fiat 500 displays an agility that goes beyond the inherent benefits of such tiny dimensions. Pressing the prominent, dash-mounted Sport button found on all 500s sharpens throttle response and adds welcome weighting to steering that is otherwise a tad flaccid and disappointingly numb on-center in its normal setting. A Mini Cooper does a similar trick, but it's more of a necessity in the Fiat. The Sport model adds a sport-tuned suspension that keeps the tall, podlike 500 level through fast corners, yet the setup also provides a surprisingly compliant ride over chewed-up pavement. Choppy freeways will still have the short-wheelbase 500 bobbing a bit, but even with the biggest wheels available (snazzy 16s), the 500 Sport's ride feels more forgiving than the often rock-hard Mini.
When you open the 500's tall door that seems to encapsulate half the car, you climb into a snug, nicely contoured seat placed high off the floor. This seating position might remind you of a minivan, but we wouldn't say this is a bad thing. Not only does this provide ample under-thigh support for tall drivers, it also creates a surprising amount of legroom in a cabin that's shorter in length than all cars not named Smart.
This tall seating position also improves your view forward, yet be warned that headroom drops by 1.3 inches when you opt for the optional sunroof (standard on the range-topping Lounge). This may not seem like a lot, but it could be the difference between comfortably sitting upright and slouching with your head canted to the right. Even drivers of average height complained about the sunroof, not to mention a mesh sunshade that barely does what's advertised.
As in a Mini, no one will ever be able to fit in the backseat behind a tall driver in the 2012 Fiat 500. Stick someone shorter up front and four folks just might fit, but headroom in back will always be tight.
Not surprisingly, trunk space is also modest. There's more length to the cargo area than in a Mini, but the 500's sloping roof line makes it less useful for carrying larger items when the backseats are folded down. In general, the 500 will be OK for shopping or a quick weekend away, but you'll need another car for big-ticket items.
Italian cars have always been known for their quirks, and the 500 certainly had us scratching our heads a few times. The gauge cluster's trip computer, tachometer and speedometer are placed within each other as if they were the layers of an onion. It takes some getting used to, and some color differentiation would be nice. The trip computer controls are split between three buttons mounted next to the gauges and a button placed on the end of the windshield wiper stalk (a location that had us riffling through the manual to find). The foglight button is located among the climate controls.
Still, the 2012 Fiat 500 is less ergonomically compromised than the hyper-quirky Mini. Its automatic climate controls are large and easy to operate, while the faceplate for the sweet-sounding Bose stereo is simple (we wish it had a volume knob instead of a rocker switch, however).
More complicated functions aren't as successful. Fiat boasts that its "Blue & Me" system has the ability to control your Bluetooth-enabled phone and iPod using voice controls. "Wow, that's just like Ford's Sync," you might think. Unfortunately, while the Bluetooth phone controls are passable, the iPod system is a joke. You must first complete a series of prompted voice commands before you're allowed to select a playlist, artist, etc. while using buttons on the back of the steering wheel and a small readout in the already cluttered gauge pack. Thankfully, there's a regular aux jack available for your portable music selection, but the sound quality isn't as good.
Design/Fit and Finish
Most of the surfaces in the 500 are hard plastics, but they are pleasantly grained to reduce glare and have a generally richer appearance than those in most other cars at this modest price point. The large dash panel painted in the exterior color is a snazzy design touch, as are the sport seats, which vaguely resemble a Ferrari's "Daytona" seats.
More importantly, our test car's various interior pieces were tightly put together and there were no squeaks and rattles. Of course, only time will tell if this is indicative of Fiat's newfound quality in its second go-around in this country, or if the gremlins of yesteryear will rear their ugly heads again. Either way, make sure to follow our forthcoming long-term test of the 2012 Fiat 500 to see how it will do over a longer period of time.
Who should consider this vehicle
The Fiat 500 has its aim squarely set on one target: the Mini Cooper. Both are small, fuel-efficient, fun to drive and oozing with quirky character. The 500 is slower and a tad less practical, but it's also considerably cheaper. Our well-equipped 2012 Fiat 500 Sport cost an even $19,000 — a base Mini Cooper costs $400 more and lacks many of the 500's features.
Of course, there are a number of subcompact cars that don't make you feel like you've been thrown into the penalty box. The Ford Fiesta not only has four doors, but it's refined and boasts voice-activated electronics controls that actually work. The Honda Fit might not have the character of the 500 or Mini, but it's tremendously practical, with a spacious backseat that folds flat to reveal an SUV-rivaling cargo area. All four are completely different takes on the subcompact game, but having that many high-quality choices is certainly a revelation here in America. Tiny no longer means terrible in the U.S., and that's a good thing.
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