Auto Review: Welcome back, Fiat

By Bill Heald - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Fri., Dec. 23, 2011
- Contributed Photo

Car companies are international entities, and the changing nature of ownership – along with different safety, environmental and other regulations – can all be influential as to whether a particular make may be available at a dealership near you.

Even though the name may be familiar, Fiat has been absent from the U.S. new-car market since the early 1980s – so long, in fact, that many drivers have never set eyes on one of the Italian autos. But thanks to now owning a sizable stake in Chrysler, Fiat has returned to these shores, and their first new model is the 500 (currently available in both hardtop and convertible versions). This is a compact that, in some ways, is similar to the Mini Cooper, yet has its own unique Fiat style and feel. It also proved to be a very entertaining, economical little car that was a real pleasure to live with.

This front-drive, four-seater is powered by a U.S.-made 1.4-liter MultiAir Inline Four with 101 horsepower. Two transmissions are available, depending on model: a five-speed manual and a six-speed Auto Stick automatic. Our 500c (c is for Cabriolet) convertible had the automatic gearbox, and I have to say it was a very pleasant surprise. Typically with a micro-compact like this that has a modest power output, an automatic transmission can have a rough time of it. But the 500c’s transmission worked quite well, both in automatic and manual modes. Acceleration is less than thrilling, but adequate, and the ride is very well-controlled, even over rough pavement. Handling is as you would suspect from a small car designed in Italy, meaning it’s a joy to scoot around in traffic and around tight corners (and it is easy to park in a small space). The ABS brakes had a firm pedal feel and delivered short, drama-free stops. Our Cabriolet’s clever retracting soft top was very enjoyable during a brief blast of unseasonably warm weather that allowed us to enjoy open-air motoring.

Inside, the first thing that strikes you about the new Fiat is its unique design and attractive atmosphere. Front seat room is good and the driver’s instrument cluster is both space-efficient and useful (the speedometer with incorporated tachometer is especially cool), with unconventional control interfaces that become familiar very quickly. The rear seats are a chore to access, but once discovered are actually accommodating for two, and the seatbacks fold to increase the 5.4 cubic feet of trunk space to 24. The optional Luxury Leather Package adds excellent cowhide seating surfaces and heated front seats, which are always welcome. The optional Pearl White (or Bianco Perta) exterior finish is likewise attractive, and all in all there’s a great sense of attention to detail.

Comparisons to the Mini Cooper and some other subcompacts are inevitable, but the Fiat 500 is a unique ride, especially in the Cabriolet version. The 2012 Fiat 500c Lounge is EPA-rated 27 MPG city/32 highway, and we saw 32 MPG during our week with the vehicle. Prices start at $23,500.

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