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.

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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.


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Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL