Howard Chooses a Fiat - 2012 FIAT 500 Long-Term Road Test

2012 FIAT 500 Long Term Road Test

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2012 Fiat 500 Sport: Howard Chooses a Fiat

August 02, 2011

Howard Lee Collage 1.jpgOur Stephen Lee does his duty in the Vehicle Data department at He’s restoring a 1973 Innocenti Mini 1001, the version of the BMC Mini built under license in Italy, so we weren’t surprised when he went wild for the 2012 Fiat 500. But the big surprise came when we learned that his father had been thinking about shopping for one, as Lee tells us in a description of their adventure below:

Certain occurrences take place in our world regularly but infrequently. Halley’s Comet makes an appearance every 75 years or so. Fashion trends recycle about every 15. And now for the first time in 20 years, my father Howard plans to purchase a new vehicle.

Although neither celestial nor cosmopolitan, my father’s decision to buy a new car is monumental in its own right. First, Howard is a man who makes purchases based on necessity, not whim. Second, he doesn’t need a new car, since he’s been retired for twenty years, owns a pristine, low-mileage 1991 Mazda MPV, and prefers to use public transportation in San Francisco, where he lives.

Imagine my surprise when he expressed genuine interest in the new Fiat 500 and asked me to take him to a dealership. As a car enthusiast with a bigger wish list than budget or common sense, I immediately obliged while trying to hide my enthusiasm.


We cruised down to the closest dealership, Fiat of Fremont, an hour’s drive away from San Francisco. Several brightly colored 500s were parked outside the showroom and several more inside. The 500’s size or lack of it makes itself immediately apparent, as it’s a subcompact car in every sense of the term. Yet its tall height and large doors make for easy ingress and egress, a trait my arthritic father loves.

Inside the showroom, young salesman Steve Sokol meets us and we chitchat about our own cars for a while and then get down to business. It turns out the dealership’s inventory of 60 or so vehicles is composed of mostly mid-level sport-style models and many have additional options that raise the price sticker to around $19,000. Given a small inventory and high demand, it’s not surprising that cars are not being sold for less than the sticker price — not exactly a bargain.

It is surprising to hear from Sokol that the majority of customers are choosing to buy 500s with the manual transmission. Apparently such cars get snatched up quicker than free food samples at Costco and the dealership cannot keep them in stock.

All this begs the question: Why would my father want a Fiat 500, much less any new car at all?


The new Fiat 500 is a modern interpretation of the 500 Nuovo (the successor to the original Topolino), but without any of original’s defining characteristics. The second-generation 500 was a quirky rear-engine car with an air-cooled 2-cylinder engine, a car designed to move the masses of Italy as economically as feasible amidst the rebuilding post-war Europe of the late 1950s. The 2012 Fiat 500 is none of those things — neither particularly quirky, economical, or practical. For about the same money as a mid-range 500, my father can purchase an entry-level Hyundai Sonata or Toyota Camry.

Under some pressure, my father finally told me his true reason for wanting a Fiat 500, something he made clear later back home when he showed me some photographs from his youth in Hong Kong. As I knew, he had once worked as a mechanic and had ridden BSA motorcycles and driven a variety of very strange (to me, anyway) cars on the narrow mountain and coastline roads in the former British colony. His pictures reveal a Morris Minor, a Volkswagen Beetle, some kind of weird Simca sedan (what is it?), a Fiat sedan (what is it?) and finally a flashy MGB GT.

Howard Lee Collage 2.jpg

Five decades and forty pounds ago, back in his youthful days, my father and his friend also drove around everywhere in Hong Kong in a Fiat 500. With gleaming eyes and a warm smile, he tells me stories of how the baby Fiat with its anemic engine would struggle and then fail to get him and his friend up the hills. People on foot were moving faster, so ultimately the passenger would jump out and be a pedestrian for the sake of forward progress.

We both laughed and it was then that I realized that I was missing the point. My father doesn’t need the 2012 Fiat 500 because it’s the most sensible choice nor does he care that it’s nothing like the original. He wants it because the car makes him feel happy, and it would continue to do so even if it were to sit in the garage on most days and then be washed every week. It still brings back fond memories.

The story of Howard and the Fiat 500 shows us again that cars can give us sensations that nothing else can. A car can give us the exhilarating feeling of speed. It can awe us with the engineering marvel it represents. The lines of beautiful bodywork can hold us spellbound. To work on one gives us satisfaction. A car can even make us feel nostalgic as we reminisce about our unique personal adventures with it.

Maybe we are most sensitive to these things at both the beginning and the end of our lives, when practical considerations and family obligations are least influential, so our car choices are then the most personal. Judging by the high take-rate for the 2012 Fiat 500 with manual transmission, it might be that the next generation of 500 owners might have become (or already are) car enthusiasts.

Congratulations, Dad. Like it or not, you’re still a car enthusiast. We’ll pick up a Fiat 500 with an automatic transmission (light-brown Mocha Latte would be my color choice), as soon as the dealership in San Francisco opens.

Stephen Lee, Editor, Vehicle Data, @ 6,380 miles

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