Reviews

2012 Fiat 500 Introduction

The 2012 Fiat 500 is like the Mini or Volkswagen New Beetle, a modern recreation of a classic. It was introduced in Italy four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 0.5-liter original. Half a million Fiat 500s have been sold in Europe already, spurred by 60 international awards, including European Car of the Year in 2008. Now, as a Chrysler product, the Fiat 500 is being made in Mexico for the North American market.

The 500 is affectionately known by insiders who can pronounce it as the Cinquecento, or “chin-kway-chento.” Out of the box, it's a contender for fun-to-drive champ, as a four-seat A-class commuter car. We found it to be more fun than its competition, including Mini, Fit, Fiesta, Yaris, and Mazda2.

The Fiat 500 is about 6 inches shorter than a Mini, costs about $4000 less while including Bluetooth, and offers safety with a 5-star crash rating, sporty performance, fuel economy, technology, cool style and good looks. It features seven airbags, a new 1.4-liter engine with something called MultiAir cylinder head technology, state-of-the-art BLUE&ME hands-free technology and a Bose sound system standard in two of the three models, and a great 5-speed gearbox or optional 6-speed manual automatic transmission that's also fun.

There are three models, although versions would be a better word than models, because they're so different, in a slight but meaningful way.

The Sport really means it. If you want a totally cool sports car that gets 34 mpg and can move four young people around, the Fiat 500 Sport is for you. The ride is firm, brakes are amazing, steering is quick and gearbox terrific, so use it all or live with it. The seats are terrific and the special Sport interior is attractive.

The Pop is that rare if not unique model, both the lowest cost and most all-around practical. For $2000 less than the Sport, the Fiat 500 Pop is less aggressive with a better ride. But the extra equipment in the Sport is a great $2000 value, so you're a winner either way, as long as you know what you want. You can also get the automatic transmission in the Pop, for $1000. You lose some Italian flavor with the automatic, but not having to constantly work your left leg in the city, or freeway traffic jams, is a relief.

The Lounge is for those who want their Cinquecento to feel more like a real car, with the automatic transmission, softened ride and steering, added chrome, more amenities, and optional leather.

With the Sport, you get a lot for the $2000 higher price versus the Pop. With the Lounge, at $3000 more than the automatic Pop, you don't get so much. You get to feel like your Fiat 500 is the luxury version. All three models are named well. It would be best to take a test ride of all three before you buy, to feel the differences. Which might not be possible for a while, as Chrysler dealerships have to ramp up to sell the Fiat 500. Production began in March 2011.

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