Low cost and high fuel economy have dominated the buying decisions of subcompact drivers for too long. Efficiency's all fine and good, but it's sort of like wheat toast. It's better with a swipe of butter.
With its 500 for 2012, Fiat is making a perfectly timed reentry into the U.S. market after a 28-year absence.
FOR THE RECORD:
Fiat 500 car review: In the March 24 Business section, a box accompanying a review of the 2012 Fiat 500 stated that the engine has four cylinders and 16 valves per cylinder. The engine has four valves for each of the cylinders. —
Four-dollar-per-gallon gas was the tipping point that got drivers thinking — and buying — small almost three years ago, the last time fuel prices surged as rapidly as they're doing today.
In the current post-economic-meltdown marketplace, however, downsizing consumers who willingly trade space for fuel efficiency are increasingly hesitant to also sacrifice style, technology and fun.
Starting at $16,000, the Fiat 500, or Cinquecento as it's known in its native land, is a modern take on the 54-year-old original with a reshaped and slightly larger body style inspired by the low-set and rounded lines of its 1957 predecessor.
Available at Fiat "studios," the 500 went on sale this month. Seventeen of a planned 130 sites are up and running in the U.S. The majority of these sales locations should be open by August. Even now, many of the 130 dealers have demo units.
Powered by a 1.4-liter, inline four-cylinder engine, the 500 uses Fiat's patented MultiAir system to meet customers' and manufacturers' increasing desire for fuel efficiency.
Making its debut on the 500, the technology electronically adjusts the engine's air and fuel intake, boosting the car's mileage (to a maximum of 38 miles per gallon on the highway) and power (to a modest 101 horses and decent-for-its-size 98 pound-feet of torque).
The 500 comes in three versions — Pop, Sport and Lounge. The entry-level Pop and athletic Sport are available with either five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions. The more luxurious Lounge is available only as an automatic.
The Sport version I tested has slightly larger, 16-inch wheels than the other two models and a sport-tuned suspension. Mine had a five-speed manual that not only gets better fuel economy (30 mpg city) than the automatic but also has a sport mode. All three models are equipped with this sport button, which, when pushed, makes the 500 almost as perky as a shot of espresso.
Pressing "sport" on the dash improves the steering feel at higher speeds as well as the throttle's responsiveness, while also lifting the transmission shift points to higher rpm. Not pressing the sport button? It's like driving a different car — one that's as weak and unsatisfying as diner coffee.
Enhancing the fun of sport mode is the car's power rack-and-pinion steering with electric power assist. The wheel feels light and turns almost as freely as the wheel in a NASCAR arcade game, although, because the 500 is front-wheel drive, the steering does tense up under hard acceleration.
The 500 I was testing had a banana yellow exterior and chocolate brown leather trim inside. The color combination is sort of like a Ferrari-red gondola with leather bench seats — unusual but oddly pleasing and very, very Italian.
A two-door hatchback, the Fiat 500 has a decent amount of legroom for those in the front bucket seats, but anyone with big hair, a long torso or an overall height exceeding 6 feet is likely to feel claustrophobic and boxed in by the roof.
It is, after all, a subcompact — one that supposedly seats four, although the only person I felt comfortable seating in the back was my 8-year-old. He didn't complain about the legroom but he thought the head rests were uncomfortable. I wouldn't recommend the back seat for adults, because the legroom is virtually nil.
The rear cargo hold is, likewise, small. The rear seat splits in two segments and folds down to open up more space, but it doesn't fold flat. Still, there is more than enough space to carry groceries, laundry or a pile of bodyboards and beach towels. The car's wide rear end benefits the tailgate, which has a fairly broad opening.
From the driver's perspective, the cockpit is attractive and intriguingly well arranged. In addition to a USB port, the usual steering-wheel controls for hands-free phone calls and, surprisingly, a high-fidelity Bose audio, it features an LCD dashboard display that's configured something like a combination lock.
Three concentric gauge-cluster rings in front of the driver offer different pieces of information. The outermost ring is an analog speedometer and the center ring an analog tachometer. The innermost circle is a digital display of the time, gas gauge, odometer and engine temperature, as well as the radio settings and turn-by-turn navigation directions.
The circular theme isn't as dramatic or as oversized in the Fiat as it is in the BMW Mini, which will finally get some real competition with the 500. It is, however, a stylish detail that's mirrored elsewhere in the cabin — with circular vents and controls for the radio, as well as the mechanism that lifts and lowers the windows.
The circular theme even extends to the car's driving dynamics. Flipping a U-turn was outrageously easy because of its short wheelbase and tight turning radius.
The Fiat's 16-inch wheels are small like other subcompacts' and are mostly adequate. Driving through potholes is never a pleasant experience, regardless of what type of car you're driving. Small wheels like the Fiat's almost get lost in them if they have the misfortune of driving through rather than steering around them.
The MacPherson front suspension and rear twist-beam axle — even with the upgraded sport-tuned coil springs and twin-tube shocks on the Sport — are challenged by rough, post-rain roadways.
Overall, the Fiat 500 is a stylish, well-priced addition to the increasingly crowded subcompact space. It isn't perfect, but it is a great value that demonstrates that a lack of funds doesn't have to mean dowdy design and limp performance.