2012 Fiat 500 Lounge Review - VIDEO ENHANCED
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS
Fourth of July, 2011. I'm driving a Fiat 500, the Italian company's comeback car in the US marketplace, and the timing couldn't be better. Its namesake and ancestor made its debut in Italy on July 4th, 1957.
Like many other European car makers, Fiat abandoned the US market when American emissions and safety regulations became far stricter than those in Europe. And there was a checkered reputation for quality (Fix It Again, Tony…), exacerbated by the differences between American and European owner maintenance practices, or lack thereof. Fiat was secure in the European market, and few people expected it to make a comeback in the US.
Watch TACH's exclusive Fiat 500 and 500c promo video
Never say never, and there have been no lack of surprises in the auto industry in the past few years. Fiat appeared as the surprise saving partner for Chrysler in 2009, opening the door for a re-entry to North America. The first Fiat to go on sale is the 500.
The current Fiat 500 been available in Europe since 2007. Although current European and American emissions and safety regulations are closer than ever, they're not identical, and some revisions were required. Modifications to the unibody structure, revised tuning of the suspension, and improved soundproofing highlight the upgrades to the American-spec car compared to its European equivalent.
Where a variety of engines are offered overseas, we get only the premium 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter "MultiAir" four-cylinder, manufactured in Dundee, MI. North American Fiat 500s are assembled in a Chrysler facility in Toluca, Mexico. Transmissions are five-speed manual and six-speed automatic. Unlike its namesake (see sidebar), the new Cinquecento (that's Italian for "five hundred") has the transverse front engine, front-wheel drive layout common today. Suspension is standard for the subcompact class, independent MacPherson struts in front and a twist-beam axle in the rear.
Huge compared to its namesake, the new new 500 is still tiny by contemporary standards, especially American, and is strictly a four-seater. It's aimed at young and young-at-heart people with a sense of style. With a $15,500 base price (with destination) for the entry-level Pop model, the Cinquecento is not going for the bottom-feeder econobox market -- but even at that level it's well-equipped with power windows, mirrors, and locks, filtered air conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, height-adjustable driver's seat, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, BLUE&ME™ hands-free communication, Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) and trip computer, and more. $17,500 is the base price for the Sport version, which adds a sport-tuned suspension and sporty cosmetic upgrades. Fashionistas on a budget get the Lounge, with chrome trim and conveniences usually expected in larger and more luxurious cars, not subcompact hatches. That'll set you back $19,500 plus whatever standalone options and packages you might choose from a comprehensive array.
I've just spent a week with a Lounge model with leather replacing the standard premium cloth and a tilt-and-slide sunroof replacing the standard fixed glass roof of that model. It got plenty of attention, as it's new and there is nothing like it on the road today. It's a 5/4-scale tribute to the 1957 original, which means really large people won't fit well, and the rear seat is best used by small children and not necessarily for long distances. But that small size means easy parking and the ability to fit into spaces that even a Mini can't. Build quality and fit and finish are first-rate. Ride quality is far above the usual subcompact hatch level, think European sport-luxury -- and the rounded shape makes the small, lightweight 500 almost impervious to strong winds. It's a rocketship compared to the original, but with the Lounge's automatic it's not all that quick by today's standards. Still, it's comfortable, fun, and at 33mpg for my week, driving it like I was Italian, frugal with fuel. Here's to Fiat's comeback, and I'm hoping the 500 is a preview of more to come.
There's already the fabric-roofed Cabrio. Now then, where are the Alfas?
APPEARANCE: Style sells, and nobody does style like the Italians. The original Nuovo 500 was the people's car of its day, and put postwar Italy in affordable cars -- in style. The new Cinquecento's rounded lines and pug nose are direct stylistic descendants of its ancestor, and work. Well. "Cute" may be trite, but it's the first word to come to mind looking at the car. It brings smiles to onlookers -- and the driver and passengers. The wheels are at the corners, and overhangs are minimal. Headlights are not six-volt candles, they're bright projector beam units in all models, and whatever the trim detail differences, they all share the same face, highlighted by the lights and two chrome strips flanking the central Fiat logo.
COMFORT: There really isn't more inside than outside but it seems like it. Space utilization is exemplary, and the interior is as stylish as the exterior. And as functional. The dash top is short and made of textured plastic so glare is not a problem - and it shows that hard plastics can look good. In all versions, the steering wheel has a leather rim and audio and cruise controls on the horizontal spokes. It's tilt-adjustable only. At a glance, the instrument panel looks to be right out of 1957, but closer inspection shows its modern digital nature. The main instrument is directly in front of the driver, and, concentrically from the outside, includes the speedometer surrounding the tachometer surrounding a digital combination with fuel, temperature, and information displays. It's simple, space-efficient, and stylishly functional. Pushbutton controls for audio and climate control systems emulate the round buttons of the past, and the retro look is furthered by the metal facing on the main part of the instrument panel. The manually-adjustable front seats are far better than the class standard, and leather may be had in the Lounge. The rear is strictly for two, and folds 50/50 for cargo use. As long as rear passengers are under about 5-8 and those in front about the same, there's enough space, although the rear is not a long-term habitat. The front passenger seats slides forward to ease rear access. Luggage space is adequate for a couple of carry-on size bags with the rear seat in place.
SAFETY: Yes, driving the Cinquecento on the highway amongst larger vehicles -- meaning just about anything else including some motorcycles -- puts me in touch with my Mesozoic ancestors dodging dinosaurs. But quick reflexes, excellent four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and traction and stability control allow the driver to steer clear of trouble, while a safety cage body structure with crumple zones and a full complement of airbags give passive protection.
RIDE AND HANDLING: The Lounge gets the standard suspension calibration, which is moderately firm and might even be called "sport" by many other manufacturers. Surprisingly, given the short wheelbase, the ride is never choppy, even on poor pavement and highway expansion joints. Body roll is minimal, steering light but not overly so, and turn-in response good. The 500 is absolutely fun to drive, especially on narrow, twisty roads. Highway stability is very good, even in strong winds, and it's just as at home at speed on the Interstate as on the most goaty backroad.
PERFORMANCE: Compared to the 1957 Nuovo 500, today's Cinquecento is incredibly fast. By today's measure, not so much. But it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than to drive a fast car slow, and light weight makes the little Fiat is quick enough with some planning. Momentum management is your friend… The innovative 1.4-liter MultiAir engine uses electro-hydraulic control of the intake valves to adjust lift and duration and phasing continuously in real time, reducing emissions and fuel use and increasing power. Think adjustable hydraulic tappet; there are still valve springs so if anything in the electrohydraulic system fails, the valve closes and does not catastrophically meet with the piston. Result is 101 horsepower at 6500 rpm, with torque peaking at 98 lb-ft at 4000. The six-speed automatic makes the best of that with an automatic, and has a "sport" mode that shifts more firmly and at higher revs. It works well enough for everyday driving, but if you're thinking more performance, go with the stick.
CONCLUSIONS: Small is beautiful with the new Fiat 500.
2012 Fiat 500 Lounge
Base Price $ 19,500
Price As Tested $ 22,750
Engine Type SOHC inline 4-cylinder with MultiAir electro-hydraulic intake valve actuation
Engine Size 1.4 liters / 83 cu. in.
Horsepower 101 @ 6500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 98 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length 90.6 in. / 139.6 in.
Curb Weight 2434 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 24
Fuel Capacity 10.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium recommended, 87 octane unleaded regular permissible
Tires 185/55R15 82H Conti ProContact
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, TCS, ESC standard
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / semi-independent twist-beam axle
Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
city / highway / observed 27 / 34 / 33
0 to 60 mph est 10.5 sec
OPTIONS AND CHARGES
15" Premium-finish aluminum wheels $ 300
Compact spare tire $ 100
Power sunroof 850
Leather Luxury Package $ 1,500
Destination charge $ 500
Five hundred cubic centimeters, half a liter, is considered a marginally small displacement for a motorcycle engine today. But in the past, it was considered perfectly adequate for a small, inexpensive automobile meant to have maximum fuel economy and minimal cost of ownership. Europe from the 1930s through the late 1950s was hardly wealthy, with first the economic effects of worldwide depression, then World War II, and rebuilding after that meaning that personal transportation, if even affordable, likely meant two wheels, with or without an engine. Fiat built small, inexpensive cars for that market.
The first Fiat 500 debuted in 1936. Quickly nicknamed "Topolino" -- the little mouse -- it was a downsized version of a regular car in form, with a 569cc liquid-cooled sidevalve four-cylinder engine under the hood, driving the rear wheels. Just over ten feet long, with all of 13 horsepower, the Topolino was capable of 50 mph and almost 40 mpg and offered protection from the elements for two people -- or more if owners could cram them in. Luxury? Yes, in comparison to a donkey cart or feet.
The Topolino was replaced by the Fiat 600 in 1955. It had a 633cc, 21-hp liquid-cooled OHV inline four behind its rear axle, like the VW Beetle but with real cooling and heating. About the same size as the Topolino, seating four, and weighing all of 1300 lbs, the 600 could reach 60 mph.
Still, given the struggling Italian economy of the late 1950s, the 600 was too big and too expensive for many people. So in 1957 came the Nuova (New) 500. Smaller than the 600, under ten feet in length on a six-foot wheelbase, it had a 500cc air-cooled opposed-twin engine with all of 13 horsepower. Later improvements brought that up, eventually to 21 hp. Think half a 1200cc VW Beetle engine… It weighed all of 1100 lbs, so that minimal amount of power was adequate for the roads and travel of the day, with little thirst for fuel.
The Nuova 500 was the first car for many Italians of the day, and is fondly remembered there today. Few made it across the Atlantic, as it was the antithesis of an American car of the late `50s, they heyday of the battle-cruiser chromed Yank Tank. 600s did officially make it over. There are a few Nuovo 500s in the country, and probably fewer Topolinos. Look for them at Italian car shows.
Aside: Racer humor being what it is, Topolinos were modified to be drag racers. "Modified" may not be the right word… think body over tube-frame chassis, with big honkin' American V8 power. I remember a model of on as a kid back in the late Pleistocene, but forget what engine the car modeled used. A quick Internet search turns up a few with Chevy engines, and mostly very modified or fiberglass replica bodywork. Perhaps one in the Olden Daze had a nice big 426 Hemi under the hood, with big Roots blower sticking through? Wonder if that's in the Mopar accessories catalog?