SAN DIEGO, CA – We’ve had new, modern versions of the Beetle and Mini – now comes the Italian equivalent – the 2012 Fiat 500. Nobody is more passionate about motor vehicles than the Italians and the 500, which first hit the streets of that country in 1948 is literally adored, a part of the very fabric of Italy. Almost four million of the diminutive little rear-engined Fiats were built before modern crash and emission standards forced it out of production in 1975.
Now, 37 years later, the 500 returns. But this is a proper, thoroughly modern automobile. Like the current Beetle and MINI it bears a distinct likeness to its namesake. But also like them, it has a high-tech engine in front driving the front wheels and meets or exceeds all current crash and safety regulations. The current Fiat 500 has been sold in Europe since 2007 and was named European Car Of The Year in 2008. With Fiat holding a controlling interest in Chrysler, the little 500 comes to Canada in spring 2011.
"Although it’s a small car, it’s got a pretty big personality," Reid Bigland, CEO and president of Chrysler Canada said here during the introduction. A blend of modern technology and Italian style, the new Fiat 500 will come in three trim levels, 14 colors, 11 interior choices and with five wheel choices. The idea is that you can design your own. Prices start at $15,995
Despite that price, this is a well put-together car with quality materials and excellent levels of fit and finish.
Let’s put the quality issue on the table and deal with it first.
For younger generations the attraction of the Fiat 500 will be immediate, based on style and value. But for older consumers, Chrysler and Fiat will have to overcome a reputation established 30 years ago when FIAT colloquially stood for "Fix It Again, Tony".
Concerns about quality and reliability have been largely exorcised by modern design and production techniques. After all, Hyundai has gone from worst (Pony) to best (current Sonata) in the quality rankings. The new 500 has been in production in Europe for three years and those sold in North America are being built in the same Mexican factory that produced the Chrysler PT Cruiser, for a decade, and later the Dodge Journey. Both vehicles have a solid reputation for build quality. The Fiat-designed engine for the 500 comes from a plant in Michigan
Despite its diminutive size and cuteness, the 500 boasts a remarkable amount of interior space. Standard equipment includes seven air bags, electronic stability control, hill start assist and ABS. It easily passed both European and North American crash tests – after some structural changes to meet the different crash tests conducted here. The front seats are spacious, the drivers’ height adjustable, and two can squeeze into the rear. There is room for a few grocery bags in the cargo area with the rear seat in place
Inside, style is the dominant theme with a metal body-coloured instrument panel stretching from door-to-door. A single instrument pod in front of the driver informs of all pertinent functions in a combination of analog and digital formats. The audio system sits atop the center portion while below rests a pod containing the HVAC system and gear lever. On the gripe side are a lack of storage and a narrow passenger-side foot welL.
This is an Italian car so you expect excellent driving dynamics. You won’t be disappointed. The 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, labelled "Multi-Air" after its unique and patented intake system, produces 101 hp, which is channelled to the front wheels through your choice of five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions.
That may not sound like much power, but the 500 weighs only 1072 kilograms (2363 lb) making for a pretty lively vehicle. The manual is a delight to use with excellent linkage, nicely-spaced ratios and a progressive clutch. The standard hill-hold system will take the worry out of stopping on hills and the 5.1-litre/100 km mileage rating will certainly please.
Opt for the automatic (the same Aisin unit used in the MINI) and you get paddle shifters on the wheel and the ability to hit a "sport" button to speed up those shifts and throttle response.
The same light weight that allows the engine to shine also means it handles the turns with alacrity. It feels like a go-kart, albeit at the expense of ride quality over poor surfaces.
The 2012 Fiat 500 will be available in Pop, Sport and Lounge trim. The mechanicals stay the same across the $15,995 - $19,500 range. Standard equipment includes the aforementioned raft of safety equipment, 15-inch wheels, remote keyless entry, power windows, locks and heated mirrors, six-speaker audio system and tilt wheel. Move up to the Pop ($18,500) model and you add 16-in cast aluminum wheels, red brake calipers, unique front and rear fascias and side sills, spoiler and a chromed exhaust outlet. Inside it comes with special sport seats, unique trim, air conditioning, cruise control, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and wireless connectivity. The line-topping Lounge $19,500) model gets leather seats, glass sunroof, unique alloy wheels, automatic climate control, satellite radio, audio upgrade and an alarm system.
The Fiat 500 is a well-crafted, stylish piece feels solid and offers exceptional agility. A convertible version will be here in time for spring and a more powerful, probably turbocharged Abarth model next spring.
Fifty years ago European manufacturers sent a raft of small cars across the Atlantic. We got the VW Beetle from Germany, The Mini from England although, thankfully, we did not get the deux chevaux" (Citroen 2CV) from France. At that time, the big news in small cars in Italy was the Fiat 500.