First Ride: Trekking Fiat 500 makes SoCal stop

Click image for high-res gallery of pics of the first Fiat 500 in the States

Jim Magill's little Fiat 500 made a stop in SoCal this weekend and we were among the lucky few who got some seat time in it. As we recently blogged, Jim shipped his microcar to the States all the way from Belfast, Northern Ireland to help raise some cash for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice, and to meet with some fellow Fiat tifosi along the way. As part of the plan the Cinquecento is being driven to some high profile events to show it off and help spread the word about his cause. In the OC this past Saturday morning, the car attracted a ton of attention at a weekly car show, even sitting in the shadow of a few Zagato-bodied Lancias and Alfas. While the nearby Isettas made it seem positively huge, the tiny Fiat was still appreciated for its frugality and miniscule footprint. After the show we went for a spin and stopped to take a few pics of the car next to a handy Smart ForTwo. Follow the jump to see what we thought of it.

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While people in the crowd were nearly unanimous in their love of the overall style, there were quite a few comments about some of the details that led us to believe Fiat might have to rethink a few things before the car could really catch on here in the colonies. The seat material, for instance, looks funky retro but also shows some heavy soiling even though this particular example only has 11,000 miles on the clock. Similarly, the two-tone dash plastics seem to betray the car's youth. The tan and black adds some zip, but neither section looks fresh. The best part is the body-color panel running from door to door with the cool 500 badge on it.

Despite our concerns about the covering, the seats were comfortable and supportive with plenty of room and grip. The backseat could even accommodate a pair of adults if the front seat occupants were no bigger than average. We had a 6-foot beanpole and a 300-lb, ex-intramural footballer back there and neither had reason to complain. There's not a ton of luggage room with all four seats occupied, but no worse than in a Mini Cooper for instance.

But those are practical details and this car is clearly about style and passion. Just take a look at the controls and gauge cluster. No Mini-like toggles or central pod, but rather a simple and straightforward arrangement that manages to evoke the original's controls while simultaneously bringing the most up-to-date infotainment features to the occupants. Voice-activated phone and music search integration, concentric speedo and tach with multi-function digital display, ipod and bluetooth connectivity, and redundant steering wheel controls all give a premium feel to this economy car.

Exterior details are stylish and again evoke the original Fiat 500 from the '60s. This base model has the fixed glass roof that features a handy shade. It also has the signature chrome mustache surrounding the large red fiat badge on the nose. Large roundish headlamps and a pair of fog lamps bracket the distinctive front fascia bulge as well. The tail features a rather raked hatch with details that match the theme up front. It sits over a rather large rear bumper that swells to accommodate the pushed out rear wheels. The car has a great stance that looks like it will be fun to drive.

Unfortunately the driving experience isn't quite up to the challenge. While the structure is solid and quiet, the engine feels so underpowered that you will have to floor it 90% of the time to even approximate keeping up with traffic. More power from Novitec or from Fiat's own Abarth version would easily cure that concern. The shifter has a nice feel to it, with solid, nicely weighted movements. That's a good thing because you'll be using it a lot to make the most of the meager horsepower. In all fairness, this car is more about economy in this configuration, and returns something like 50 imperial mpg in mixed use. Just be careful on uphill starts and think long and hard about overtaking. That 1.2L four only manages 68 HP. Opt for the 1.4 and that number climbs to 100.

The brakes felt more than capable in comparison and the handling always felt up to the task. Granted we were never able to generate enough speed to even come close to generating .5 g of lateral grip, but the ride/handling compromise seemed fine. The short wheelbase means that freeway jaunts can be a bit choppy, but there is enough suspension travel that it's not too bad. And like we said earlier, this car isn't about being practical, it's about style and emotion.

We had tons of people pulling alongside us on our brief ride to get a closer look, including a lady in a Mini Cooper S Cabriolet that rode next to us for five full minutes while checking us out. It makes just about everyone who sees it smile and many will have you roll down your window so they can ask questions on the fly. No, it isn't Japanese or Korean. It's Italian. No, it isn't fast, but the platform feels like it can handle a lot more power. No, it isn't a Smart car. The Smart car is taller, but this is almost two feet longer. Yes, it is as fun as it looks, but slow. No, you can't buy one here, yet. Fiat is thinking about U.S. sales. Yes, we want one, badly.

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