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A Very Small Car In A Very Big America

2012 Fiat 500 - Click above for high-res image gallery

Five minutes behind the wheel sometimes tells you everything you need to know about a vehicle. Of course, you figure out more as the miles pile up, but the gained nuances usually support – not refute – that first impression.

Our first five minutes behind the wheel of the 2012 Fiat 500 shouted that it was solid, substantial and sporty. The rest of the day simply demonstrated the amplitude of these characteristics, and whether the exceptionally-popular-in-Europe 500 might actually catch on with American drivers.

We think it will.

Continue reading...

Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL

Two well-known brands have helped prepare Americans to accept small cars: Smart and Mini. While the ForTwo has been a flop in the U.S. market, Mini has proven that small cars can be commercially viable in a country where super-sized everything is the norm.

Dimensionally between the ForTwo and the Mini Cooper, the 500 appears more substantial and less toy-like than the Smart; being nearly three feet longer than the ForTwo helps. Compared to the Mini Cooper, the 500 is six inches shorter, 2.2 inches narrower and 3.1 inches taller. On the streets of San Diego, the 500 didn't look out of place. As a matter of fact, it fit.

2012 Fiat 500 side view
2012 Fiat 500 front view2012 Fiat 500 rear view

Just as importantly, the 500 retains its Italian sense of style that helped make it so popular in Europe. In the accompanying photos, you can see that the EU-market 500 (with stripes, at left) is almost indistinguishable from the NAFTA 500. The new Cinquecento's styling lineage to the original 1957 500 is clear.

The Fiat/Chrysler team responsible for creating a NAFTA-legal 500 changed only what was required for homologation and North American consumer tastes. Nothing more. This dictated a myriad of tweaks, most of which are out of sight. Careful study reveals slightly different front and rear fascias, different light configurations, and different positioning for the fuel filler door.

2012 Fiat 500 logo2012 Fiat 500 headlight2012 Fiat 500 wheel2012 Fiat 500 taillight

"In the EU we have no rear crash standard as you do in the U.S.," says Fabio DiMuro, Chief Engineer on the 500. "To meet U.S. standards, we moved the fuel filler assembly farther forward and changed the rear floor pan. We expect full five-star ratings." DiMuro, who helped launch the European 500 in 2007, explained that EU-500s have the spare tire mounted inside the trunk in a well. The U.S.-spec 500 has a reinforced rear cargo area floor with no well. The spare tire is mounted under the car.

To show the new structure's strength, a 500 that had been subjected to the 40-mph offset barrier crash was part of Fiat's press presentation. Amazingly, the front door opened without a hitch and the windshield was intact. Seven airbags stand ready to further protect occupants.

2012 Fiat 500 crash test demo2012 Fiat 500 structural demo

Joe Grace, the 500's Vehicle Line Executive, also told us, "We were able to keep the 500's Italian flair, but we needed to dial-in its dynamic performance to meet American expectations." Our 500 has more power (101 horsepower) and a fatter low-end torque curve thanks to the MultiAir induction system. Additionally, the EU 500 is not offered with a traditional automatic transmission. The NAFTA 500 is available with a six-speed Aisin gearbox. A similar unit with different internal ratios is used in various Mini models. To quell the engine's noise, vibration and harshness, the 1.4-liter four-cylinder is mounted to the chassis using hydraulic engine mounts.

Regarding the chassis, the NAFTA 500's rear axle is a stouter design. This change allowed the Fiat/Chrysler development team to soften the 500's spring rates and damper settings to improve the little car's ride. The performance improvement is so substantial that EU 500s will soon use the new rear axle design.

Fiat is offering three 500 models in The States; the Pop ($15,500), Sport ($17,500) and Lounge ($19,500). The Lounge is a fancier Pop model. The Sport is a USA-only model that includes more aggressive front and rear fascias, rear spoiler, sportier seats, red brake calipers, and 16-inch aluminum wheels.

2012 Fiat 500 engine

Inside, the Italian flair remains front and center. The 500 greets occupants with a fun, bright, happy and functional cabin. The instrument cluster presents its key data with a gauge-within-a-gauge arrangement. The speedo is the largest sweep and the tach resides inside the speedo with a digital LCD cluster nestled inside.

While fun to look at, the cluster isn't the best for visibility, especially in 500 Sport models. The retro funky gauge graphics on Pop and Lounge models provides better legibility. For some inexplicable reason, the Sport has boring graphics that appear totally out of character with the rest of the car. Plus, the Sport's cluster is harder to read at a glance.

Controls throughout the interior are easy to reach and use. The center trim appliqué is finished in the car's body color. This adds to the interior's levity, and we can imagine owners having fun with this space (having it striped or tattooed, for example). The styling cue helps give the interior a two-tone look accentuated by the exposed painted metal on the A-, B- and C-pillars.

2012 Fiat 500 interior2012 Fiat 500 gauges2012 Fiat 500 audio controls2012 Fiat 500 dash

The radio, mounted at the top of the dash, is easy to use, but depending on the ambient light, the LCD graphics can wash out. While it wasn't hot during our drive time in Southern California, it was warm enough to make us uncertain as to whether the 500's standard air conditioning will be capable of cooling the cabin during a hot and humid American summer.

Since the 500's EU dash design did not designate real estate for a NAV screen, the NAFTA 500 can be equipped with a TomTom unit that mounts in a special in-dash receptacle. Blue&Me hands free software integrates the NAV unit with the built-in sound system and controls.

Once in the supportive driver's seat, the 500 doesn't feel small from behind the wheel. The two front seats are plenty roomy. Visibility is unhindered and aided by the exterior mirrors that feature a blind-spot facet. The rear seats are tiny, providing headroom for short adults up to about five-foot, five-inches. Taller passengers will ride with their necks bent because there's not enough legroom to slouch. The rear seats fold individually to expand the trunk's 9.5 cubic foot area.

2012 Fiat 500 rear seats2012 Fiat 500 rear cargo area

On the road, the 2012 Fiat 500 drives much bigger than it looks. Each example we drove felt solid, with body motions that are well controlled and a suspension with a firm character. With just 90.6-inches between the front and rear wheels, you feel bumps and pavement changes, but the feeling isn't choppy or harsh. Conversely, the ride also isn't flimsy or floppy.

The electric power steering delivers good road feel and turns with appropriate effort (not to light or too heavy). Steering effort and throttle mapping change when you toggle the Sport button on and off, and in 500s with an automatic, gear shifts are held longer and the speed of the shifts is reduced when Sport mode is active.

The NAFTA 500 tracks well on winding roads and effortlessly moves through city traffic. Body roll is present but minimal and the brakes felt progressive, even during exuberant street driving. Fade never reared its smelly head. The five-speed manual transmission felt good and operated cleanly for a cable-actuated system. The six-speed automatic responded quickly and without drama, and after driving an automatic 500, we prefer this powertrain to the Ford Fiesta with its six-speed dual clutch auto 'box.

2012 Fiat 500 shifter

On the highway, the interior is surprisingly quiet and free of engine noise. While it's not nearly as silent as the new Chrysler 300 we drove a day earlier, the wind and road noise we detected wasn't objectionable.

Regardless of where you're driving, there's no mistaking that 101 horsepower isn't much. But it's enough. Flat-out acceleration is adequate thanks to 98 pound-feet of torque. We didn't put a watch to the 500, but we're estimating 0-60 mph requires about nine seconds and change. If you're used to loads of torque, you'll need to adjust your driving style, but once you've made the mental shift, you work to conserve momentum and simply brake less, relying on the 500's precise handling.

And yes, the turbocharged 500 Abarth should be available early next year for those who want a speedier experience.

2012 Fiat 500 front 3/4 view

Beyond its undeniable cuteness and Italian flair, fuel economy will be a major consideration for 500 shoppers. Mileage isn't world beating, but is solid at 30 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg highway (five-speed manual) and 27/34 mpg (six-speed automatic).

After spending a day with the 2012 Fiat 500, we're convinced that it can stand on its own as a viable market entry. But will Americans accept it?

2012 Fiat 500 rear 3/4 view

Fiat, and its partner Chrysler, are betting it will. During their presentations, Fiat marketing people didn't peg specific sales goals for the U.S. However, 40,000 units for the first year slipped out in post-presentation conversations. Production numbers are likely to go higher as the plant in Toluca, Mexico ramps up to produce 500s for export to Brazil, Canada and other countries in the Americas.

Given American's finicky taste for compacts, it may seem risky to place the burden of re-introducing the Fiat brand on the tiny shoulders of the 500. At this point, however, we're betting with Fiat and Chrysler, not against them. After a 27-year absence, Fiat picked the right car and the right time to come back to the USA.

Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have owned a a new Fiat 500 Sport for about a month now. Absolutely solid car without a squeak or rattle in it. I have followed the reintroduction of this car for over a year. I think Chrysler and Fiat were wise to use this car to reintroduce the brand into this country. They are extreemly poplular in Europe. I agree with what someone said about the dealer network. On a second visit (Fremont, CA.), I talked with an Italian trained technicion. He is an american who has worked for car dealers all his life. Said this was the best training he had ever received. He had answers for every question I could come up with. BTW - I have owned 2 previous Fiats in the past. Both were bought new. I got over 70,000 on an 850 Spyder before I sold it and well over 100,000 on a 131. Never had any problems with either of them. For the time, the engineering was way ahead of what we were putting out. What was required was to have them serviced - regularly. I did. I look forward to hearing other people's experience with this car. I hope it makes it here. BTW - this car was designed by the same guy who designed the new Mini.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Abarth, Abarth, Abarth Say it with me.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I can't wait for the Abarth, and by the time it hits our shores, I might be ready to pick up a little run-around car. Everytime I watch Clarkson hoon that Abarth SS out, I really want to drive one. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Fiat is going to bring us.
        • 4 Years Ago
        They are starting with this model, they are bringing the drop-top and abarth one's sometime after this one hopefully shows good sales.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Will realize? They already green lighted it. Last year.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Wonderful. MINI finally has some competition in authentic exterior design.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Given American's finicky taste for compacts, it may seem risky to place the burden of re-introducing the Fiat brand on the tiny shoulders of the 500. At this point, however, we're betting with Fiat and Chrysler, not against them. After a 27-year absence, Fiat picked the right car and the right time to come back to the USA.

      Ferrari exists in the US :D
      If Fiat wants to pump up the sales of 500, bring a diesel model here.
      And would Fiat re-introduce Afla Romeo? It can be positioned as an upscale brand like Volvo. The giulietta seems to be a potent contender against VW Golf.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Hi Carl: From what I understand, Fiat is testing the waters with the 500. In the next year or two we'll get the Abarth 500 and the Esseesse (S.S.) models. My uncle has a Alfa dealership in Germany, from what he tells me, if all goes well we should see Alfa's around 2015 or so. We'll get a new version of the Giulietta and maybe the Giulia as well. He's not sure if we'll get the MiTo yet. Maybe on the next re-style or update? I've never owned an Alfa or Fiat but riding around in his GTV-6 and his MiTo turbo-diesel sure is a hell of a lot of fun!
      • 4 Years Ago
      the more i see this car the more i like it. my biggest disappointment is how long it is taking to get this car on the street. as a former fiat dealership employee, a service advisor for variuos foreign car dealerships for the last 28 years & a multi-car former fiat owner i cant wait to drive this thing. i still miss my 1978 fiat 128-3p coupe & am forever searching for one to restore, if this new fiat 500 gives me half the pleasure that car did i might buy 2 so i can just keep one in the garage next to my 1968 dodge dart to keep for years & years.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I was showing an article on the 500 to my uncle and it brought back some fond memories for him. He bought a nearly new '77 128 for $500 because the dealership couldn't find a mechanic that could fix it. His co-worker was an ex Fiat mechanic and told him which $5 switch was causing the problem. He commuted 45 miles each way to work and racked up over 200,000 miles with not a single breakdown before a drunk driver killed his beloved Fiat. It was red and black and struck me as better designed than another uncles equally loved Renault 10.
      • 3 Years Ago
      The one thing not mentioned in the article is the 4 year bumper top bumper free maintenance program. Everything is covered including oil changes, tires, batteries, windshield wipers, etc. We looked at the Soul and the Sonata but bought the 500 because we already have a SUV and needed a to drive around town. My wife loves it.
      • 3 Years Ago
      The price is about double what this shoe box wih an undersized powerplant could be worth. I would be afraid to be hit by a real car let alone a loaded pickup or truck. Even with seven airbags it isnt much safer than a motorcycle, and id trust myself on the cycle sooner. Leave the pisants in europe where most of the roads have low speed limits or dont even need one. DC has horrible streets to drive on but even they are better than most of europes cities.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Someone call Fiat and tell them there is a company called Hyundai who wil give you waaaaayyyyy more car, for less money, and with better mpg. Better reliability too probably. Dealers all over, service all over. It's the better car. Period.

        • 4 Years Ago
        But it's a Hyundai. This is Italian. It's like the difference between meatloaf and fillet mignon.
          • 3 Years Ago
          Right, that makes it better. This is Italian too: http://www.emersonkent.com/history_notes/benito_mussolini.htm The only reason to buy this is styling, plenty of cars drive like fun zippy go-carts; Hondas, Hyundais, Minis, etc. Don't be confused- this is NOT a performance or premium vehicle- more like a "standard" cut and a far cry from a "prime" piece of filet mignon.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Let's see we bail out Chrysler to save American jobs and the first real car we get is a Italian Fiat made in Mexico that looks like a chicks car at best, el cheapo at worst?

      Go screw Chrysler. Someone ask obama how this helps us create jobs. Oh yeah, the mechanics who will have to work on this Italian POS.

      Can you say, "Yugo?" It's not even priced right, 15k? For this??? It's made in mexico. Make it in china, go all out, and drop the price to $9,995. You'd sell millions, but not at 15k with that mpg.

      A joke. Smart part deux.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Wow, what a roller-skate! Wait, you mean it is not a roller-skate but an automobile? Surely you jest. I would wager a month's pay that they sell at least a dozen of these babies in the U.S. before slinking back to Italy where they belong. And, except for the original Jeep and the Hemi engine, we would not miss the remainder of Chrysler either.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yes, only big cars are good. Yeee Haaa!
      Francois Caron
      • 3 Years Ago
      I just posted my own review of the Fiat 500 on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVJBT1b4g94 It's definitely well suited for the Quebec market, at least during the summer. We'll find out just how tough it REALLY is in about six months when the snow and cold weather come back! Muahahahahahaaaa!!!! :)
      • 4 Years Ago
      Could they have possibly picked an uglier color to showcase an ugly car?

      Looks like somebody's baby took a huge dump on the side of the road.

      My bet is that it will end up like the "clown car" Smart for 2 and sell big the first year and then everyone who wanted one will have one and sales figures will tank the next year.
        • 4 Years Ago
        You can't compare this to the fortwo - they are not in the same league. The fortwo doesn't have any real competition in the US. Everyone calls it a flop, but it's actually selling at the expected volume. Daimler never expected it to sell in huge numbers here.

        @tippy - so you've driven both the fortwo and the 500, or are you just being an armchair reviewer? I've owned a fortwo for 2.5 years now, and have blown a headlamp bulb and replaced a $3 trim piece. Don't speak of quality unless you know what you are talking about.

        I like the 500 - but the window switches, steering column stalks and shifter all felt flimsy and loose. The doors are light and are easy to close. The fortwo has a completely different feel to it - everything has a (admittedly French built ) Germanic heft to it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @ Jeff: I admit that this shade of yellow isn't the most flattering on the 500, but you're crazy if you think the car itself is ugly. It's a brilliant interpretation of the classic 500 and I actually think it looks better. Also, don't compare the SmartForTwo to the Fiat 500 just because they're small - the Fiat is in a different league. It's better looking, more comfortable, and higher quality.
        • 4 Years Ago
        It's got a lot more to do with drew not being there than the car, the color photographs fine:

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