Preview Drive: 2012 Fiat 500

Iconic Italian microcar finally ready to reach American customers, under Chrysler's stewardship

by Bruno Bornino and James M. Flammang
(Historical introduction and Design Award photo by James M. Flammang;
main text and photo by Bruno Bornino, reporting from San Diego)

Revived Fiat 500, available in Europe since 2008, is
finally heading for American dealerships. Italian microcar
won 2009 World Car of the Year Design Award. (Bruno Bornino)

Sometimes over the past couple of years, it seemed like this little car would never get here. Yet, here it is: the freshly-revived Fiat 500, brought to America by the folks at Fiat/Chrysler. More than most new models, though, the Fiat 500 warrants a bit of preliminary history before delving into its current form and roadgoing skills.

Back in the late 1950s and ‘60s, the homely little Volkswagen Beetle turned into an undeniable icon, capturing the automotive hearts of millions of Americans who weren't pleased by the offerings from Detroit. In Europe at that time, a couple of other icons clamored for attention. French people typically learned to drive on the idiosyncratic Citroen 2CV (deux chevaux). Over in Italy, the micro-sized low-budget car of choice was the Fiat 500, known it Italy as the Cinquecento.

Not many cars of any size have exhibited the simple charm - coupled with fetching Italian style - of that early Fiat 500. Though available for a short while in the U.S., the 500 never quite caught on, falling far short of the popularity of the Beetle, as well as mini and microcars from Renault, Austin, Borgward, and many other European manufacturers.

Fiat is one of the old-time European marques, established in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli. Few European-made Fiats made it to the U.S. in the early days, but between 1910 and 1918, Fiats were built in Poughkeepsie, New York.

After World War II, small European cars began to trickle into the U.S. market, initially brought home by returning veterans. Only a handful of Fiats made the trip by the early 1950s, but devotees of Italian microcar style fell for the super-cute 500 Topolino (loosely translated as "little mouse"). First launched in 1936, that tiny two-seater had a four-cylinder engine ahead of its radiator.

Regular exports began with the all-new 500 series of 1957, which held a rear-mounted 479-cc two-cylinder engine developing a modest 15 horsepower. Seating four, that 500 cost a bit over $1,000, west of the Atlantic.

Like the Citroen 2CV in France, Fiat's 500 was often a young European driver's first car. Famed director Federico Fellini put 500s in such films as La Dolce Vita. Much later, in England, Top Gear magazine called the Fifties 500 the "sexiest car ever."

Only 110 inches long, the early 500 had "suicide" (rear-hinged) doors. Its four-speed manual gearbox lacked the synchronizers nearly all cars had by this time, making gear-shifting more of a challenge. Between 1957 and 1975, more than 3.7 million Fiat 500s were built, though exports to America ceased well before the finale. Sports-car fans fell instead for Fiat two-seaters, though those suffered a growing reputation for mechanical problems.

The final official Fiats sent to America were 1983 models: Spider two-seat sports cars and X1/9 sport coupes. Each hung on a few years longer, wearing Pininfarina or Bertone badges.

That little 500 was never forgotten, though. When Disney-Pixar developed its animated film Cars, released in 2006, one of the colorful "characters" was an early Fiat 500 named "Luigi."

Sporadic rumors of a revived Fiat 500 filled the air. At the 2004 Geneva (Switzerland) motor show, Fiat used an early 500 as the model for its Trepiuno concept car. Favorable public response, plus new corporate management with Sergio Marchionne as CEO, prompted the decision to turn it into a production model, which debuted for 2008. At close to 140 inches, the modern-day 500 was 30 inches longer than the original - and built in Poland.

At the New York Auto Show in April 2009 (left), the Fiat 500 won the World Car of the Year award for Design, beating Jaguar's new XF sedan. Also in the spring of 2009, the ailing Chrysler company announced talks aimed at becoming part of the Fiat empire. Following weeks of discussion, it was determined that Fiat would acquire 20 percent of Chrysler, in exchange for Fiat's smaller-car technology.

Moving into the modern age

SAN DIEGO - With less than a month gone from this “new” year, Chrysler Group LLC has re-introduced the Fiat brand that left the United States market in 1983. The all-new Fiat 500 (Cinquecento) now goes on sale in about 150 Fiat North America dealerships as a greatly anticipated 2012 model. The four-seater (two-plus-two) subcompact is available in Pop, Sport and Lounge models.

The Pop version includes a five-speed manual transmission, 15-inch steel wheels with chrome-accented wheel covers and all-season tires, seven standard air bags, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio with auxiliary audio input, power windows, power door locks, power heated mirrors, and speed control. The reconfigurable Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) features a trip computer, miles-to-empty, average fuel economy and tire-pressure monitoring display (TPM). Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price is $15,500.

The Fiat 500 Sport model also includes a five-speed manual transmission, as well as modified springs, shock tuning, steering calibration and exhaust tuning, to deliver a firmer ride and responsive handling. With more convenience features in addition to all of the Fiat Pop highlights, the Sport model has distinctively styled front and rear fascias with larger “honeycomb” grilles and flared aerodynamic treatment. Featuring 16-inch aluminum wheels, the 500 Sport incorporates bodyside sill cladding and a liftgate-mounted roof spoiler for a sporty appearance. Completing the design theme are “performance red” painted brake calipers, coupled with a sport-tuned suspension, chromed exhaust tip, and fog lamps.

Inside, the new Fiat 500 Sport features unique sport-styled seating, a Bose audio system with six premium speakers and subwoofer, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Blue&Me hands-free communication technology with USB port, eco: Drive application and iPod control capability. The MSRP of the Fiat 500 Sport is $17,500.

In addition to the Fiat Pop features, the top-of-the-line Lounge version offers premium amenities including an all-new six-speed automatic transmission with driver-selectable gear changes. Also included are front- and rear-fascia chromed accents, chrome mirror caps, fog lamps, fixed glass roof, 15-inch aluminum wheels with all-season tires, premium cloth seats, and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. Sirius Satellite Radio and a Bose audio system with six premium speakers and subwoofer are included, along with a security alarm, Blue&Me hands-free communication technology with USB port, an eco: Drive application, and iPod capability. MSRP of the Fiat 500 Lounge is $19,500.

Built on a 90.6-inch wheelbase, the Fiat 500 has an overall length of 139.6 inches. The car has an overall width of 64.1 inches; overall height of 59.8 inches; and curb weights of 2,363 lbs. and 2,434 lbs. for the five-speed manual and six-speed automatic, respectively.

“The Fiat 500 has always been the right car at the right time,” said Laura Soave, Head of Fiat Brand North America. “Like the original Cinquecento a half-century ago, the new Fiat changes the rules of personal transportation and delivers a new sense of individual expression and opportunity. At a time when America is getting back to the basics with a fresh awareness of the environment around, the new Fiat 500 identifies with today’s minimalistic attitude and delivers with state-of-the-art eco-friendly technology wrapped in world-class quality craftsmanship and style.”

On the road around San Diego

Auto writers were invited to drive the Fiat 500 models on a 100-mile route that included challenging curvy mountain roads, high-speed freeways, busy stop-and-go city streets, and even some nasty dirt and gravel roads. I found the Fiat 500 to be a very comfortable and surprisingly spacious vehicle that was reasonably quiet, very peppy and lots of fun to drive.

The interior design blends clean lines with conveniently located features. The Fiat 500’s single concentric instrument cluster – which can easily be seen through the steering wheel – features the speedometer, tachometer and trip computer in a distinct and effective manner. Frequently-used vehicle buttons are highlighted with chromed circular rings and centrally located on the exterior-matched instrument panel. For an integrated look, the new automatic or manual transmission shifter are ergonomically located into the lower instrument panel. Visibility is terrific all around, and the driver immediately has a command-of-the-road confidence.

The five-speed manual transmission has a nice feel with short throws, and is very responsive. It’s teamed with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that provides 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 98 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. It also gets an estimated 30 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. For drivers who prefer Fiat’s all-new six-speed automatic (standard on the Lounge and optional on the Pop and Sport), be aware that it also provides smooth shifting (Auto Stick) and excellent fuel economy (27 mpg city and 34 mpg highway estimated).

With 14 paint colors available in metallic, non-metallic and premium tri-coat pearl finishes, every new Fiat 500 will be distinct. The interior is available in black or ivory with 14 unique seat color and material combinations for an individualized look. A full line of authentic Fiat 500 accessories by Mopar will offer customers even more personalization possibilities at their local Fiat dealership. The possibilities include unique striping packages, exterior and interior styling accessories, and Fiat-styled merchandise. In addition, customers are now able to configure their own Fiat 500 online at

Since its initial launch in 2007, more than 500,000 Fiat 500 vehicles have been sold in more than 80 countries around the world. The Fiat 500 has also earned 60 international awards, including being named the 2008 European Car of the Year.

With gasoline prices predicted to be more than $4 per gallon by May and some “experts” guessing gasoline could even reach the dreaded $5 per gallon mark, Fiat officials are expecting the “small” Fiat 500 to be a “big” success. By the way, if you’re planning a trip to Europe in the near future, it might be wise to rent a Fiat 500 while you’re there since gasoline prices currently are between $10 and $11 per gallon!

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