Barry Winfield, Contributor
When the Fiat 500 won the European Car of the Year award several years ago we had to wonder whether this was a nod to minimal consumption or a response to the car's puppy dog cuteness. Turns out it was a little bit of both and then some.
While the cinquecento that just arrived on our shores is certainly a stylish homage to the tiny car of the same name, it also works in ways that are meaningful on today's roads. It's not fast, but it's not agonizingly slow either. It's fuel-efficient, easy to toss around and can be parked without aid of cameras or warnings.
In other words, it's a stylish car that won't grow tiresome once the novelty has worn off. At least that's how it feels so far.
It's Big Enough
First of all, the 2012 Fiat 500 accommodates two big Americans comfortably. We won't pretend there's a ton of room in the back seat (which was designed for 70th-percentile humans), but up front it's just fine, even if you're 6 feet 5 inches tall. The seats don't feel undersized, and there's room in the footbox for size 12s to practice double-clutch downshifting.
All the controls line up right and the wheel even has tilt adjustment. The seats are firm and supportive, though they would need more bolstering in a higher performance model. Our "Sport" model was powered by the 1.4-liter MultiAir engine, which has its intake valve operation driven entirely by oil pressure actuators triggered by electronic control. When they say continuously variable valve timing, they're not lying.
All that complexity produces 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm along with 98 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. It isn't much but the 1.4 manages to push the relatively light, 2,400-pound Fiat around in a way that almost never feels sluggish. Available in Pop, Sport and Lounge models, the 500 has a five-speed manual as standard equipment on all but the Lounge model, which benefits from an Aisin six-speed automatic in the U.S. market.
It's Strong Enough
While the Pop and Sport also offer the auto trans as an option, the Lounge, as befits its name, stays with the autobox. We drove both transmissions and they both work just fine. The manual five-speed has some big ratio gaps (notably the one between second and third) when you're attacking a canyon road, but if you don't mind buzzing the little four near its 6,900-rpm redline it's no problem.
That redline lives on a strange coaxial instrument gauge, which features a tachometer, speedometer and the trip computer display. Thanks to high-contrast needles, it's less confusing than we expected.
The Aisin six-speed offers AutoStick for manual override and was responsive enough to quell any concerns we may have had about it numbing or damping the little car's verve. Actually, with closer ratio gaps the Aisin might just be better suited to all forms of driving. Still, the light clutch and positive shifter action in the manual-equipped 500 is a pleasure to use, and it isn't too onerous even in heavy traffic.
Should Be Safe, Too
Despite its size, the 2012 Fiat 500 is loaded with safety gear. Stability control and ABS are standard, along with Brake Assist, seven airbags and substantial structural revisions wrought for the U.S. market. Further noise reduction was also thought to be necessary for fussy Americans, so Fiat added extensive sound-deadening panels and foam-filled pillars.
Company spokesmen say that management was so impressed by the improvements, that they'll be added to Euro models, too. The car is certainly not thrashy or noisy on the road, where a supple ride and subdued bump-thump (even on the sport-tuned springs and shocks and 16-inch wheels and tires of the Sport model) provides a reasonably quiet cabin for Fiat's rich sounding Bose stereo.
The Sport model is noticeably firmer than the Pop or Lounge, but its improved ride control is worth it. Its wheel design and cheeky red brake calipers speak more of miniature high-performance equipment than mere decoration, and the car puts all of it to good use. The 500 has the same kind of composure and communicative control sense as the Mini, which is -- let's face it -- the price of entry into the bijou sporty sedan scene right now.
It's No Italian Stripper
The best thing about the 2012 Fiat 500 is its unapologetic nature. The dimensions may be compact but the car offers pretty much everything you can get in any modern compact car.
There's automatic climate control, a premium audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and a voice-operated interface called Blue&Me co-developed with Microsoft. There's also a little add-on Tom-Tom navigation system that responds to voice commands.
Heated leather seats are also available along with 14 color options and actual cargo space. Yes, unlike the Mini, which first appeared as a coupe with minimal cargo capacity, the Fiat 500 offers up to 30 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded.
It'll Work for Now
As surprisingly practical as the base 2012 Fiat 500 feels, a little extra power will make it a truly desirable hatchback. For that we'll have to wait for the inevitable Abarth edition of the 500 which delivers a slightly healthier 133 horsepower. Heck, maybe we'll even get the Abarth SS with its 160-horse powerplant.
Those are the 500s we're waiting for. Until then, we figure the standard model will continue to charm the pants off those looking for a practical, affordable and Italian-designed hatchback. With a starting price of $15,500 it doesn't have much competition.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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