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2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review By Steve Purdy

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Fiat 500 Sport

2012 FIAT 500
Fun quotient - A+

By Steve Purdy
Michigan Bureau

This is one of those cars that draws attention, particularly in the wild lemon yellow of our test car. I love driving cars that turn heads. I’ve been behind the wheel of the Fiat 500 before but only for short, around-the-block sort of drives. Now I get to live with it for a week. Molto bene!

The new Fiat 500, assembled in Mexico, is a tiny car but not nearly as tiny as its progenitor, the cute little half-liter, half-pint city car ubiquitous in Europe from the late 50s well into the 70s. With rear engine and rear-wheel drive it was amazingly able to accommodate four decent sized Italians without injury. The Cinquecento was culturally iconic in its original form and is poised to be so again as the first product leading the reintroduction of the Fiat (“fix it again Tony”) brand in the U.S. The last time we had Fiat products on this side of the big water they were notoriously troublesome and temperamental. But, cars can’t survive in the modern market unless they are virtually trouble free.

We have the Fiat 500 here, and soon to have more Italian-based cars, because Fiat took over management and gained partial ownership of Chrysler during the bankruptcy three years ago. Sergio Marchionne recently announced that Fiat wants to increase its stake in the storied American car maker and fully integrate the two brands. Already we’re seeing plans for Chryslers and Jeeps to be sold in Europe and more Fiats and perhaps even some Alfa Romeos here.

I was looking at a busy week so was poised to put in lots of seat time. I had knee surgery the week before and my doctor didn’t recommend I drive too much. Sorry Doc! There is too much fun waiting in my driveway.

And fun it is. While not particularly fast, it is cute, agile and entertaining.

Perhaps we’re predisposed to liking the little bugger because of its cute, retro design? Styling cues honor the original car while bringing it up to date. At nearly twice the size of the original it is small enough by today’s standards that it still has the character we loved in the old one. The overall one-box shape slopes gently front and rear with simple round projector beam headlights and plain fascia with Fiat emblem in the grille-less center. The side view is dominated by a cartoon-like exaggeration of rear wheels extended outward, the efficient shape of a beetle and short overhang in front. Our sport model has the additional visual excitement of red brake calipers showing through the sexy alloy wheels.

Powered by a 1.4-liter, normally-aspirated, 101-hp 4-cylinder engine it’s not particularly quick but mated to the 5-speed manual transmission we found it entertaining to drive. Entering the freeway on our mid-length ramp I had to keep my foot to the floor running through the gears to get up to merging speed. We always needed to keep the revs up to have fun, and it winds willingly to just short of red line before the rev limiter kicks in. If we let the revs stay too low - below about 3-grand - it set up a barely perceptible grumbling resonance in the car and power was anemic. Downshift, though, and we were back to the fun. The EPA estimates fuel economy to be 30-mpg in the city and 38 on the highway with a 33-mpg average on regular fuel. With a 10.5-gallon tank we ought to easily have a 300-plus mile range.

Suspension is firm and a bit jumpy when traversing such features as deep curb cuts but not unpleasant at all on our frost-damaged country two-lane or out on the highway. Cornering on a good surface is a treat as it holds firmly and begs to be flogged. Steering is quick and firm with decent feedback if you engage the “sport” button on the dash. Otherwise it feels rather nondescript.

Inside, we find quite generous accommodations for driver and passenger with that wonderful retro style to entertain us. A body-colored metal panel stretches across the middle of the dash with audio controls above and HVAC below. The shifter is well positioned just below the HVAC. Instruments are contained in a single round unit with tach concentrically inside the speedo. Seats are comfortable and supportive with leather bolsters and fabric inserts.

Our test car came with the optional, removable TomTom navigation devise that has its own receptacle in the top of the dash. We can simply plunge TomTom’s base into the receptacle and then pinch a tab to release it and get it out of the way. When in position it felt obstructive to my view and it was quite a reach to touch its controls. In our case this week it spent most of its time searching for a satellite signal and only worked about a third of the time.

Cargo capacity isn’t bad for this subcompact - smallest car sold in the U.S. except Smart. With the 50/50 rear seat backs in place we have a decent 9.5 cubic feet for our groceries and with the seat backs down we have just over 30 cubic feet.

The Fiat 500 comes in three trim and content levels: Pop, Sport and Lounge. The entry level Pop starts at $15,500 and the top level lounge starts at $19,500. Our mid-range Sport shows a base price of $17,500. We have a $600 Customer Preferred Package, a $200 Safety and Sound Package and the TomTom navigation adds another $400. With the $500 destination charge our sticker shows $19,200.

It also comes in a convertible called 500c, a Gucci edition, a Pink Ribbon edition to support breast cancer awareness and a wicked Abarth turbo with 160 horsepower. Abarth gets a wing on the back, ground effects and other performance stuff to make us all happy. Can’t wait to get some seat time in that one.

Warranty covers the whole car for 4 years or 50,000 miles and routine maintenance is covered for 3 years or 36,000 miles.

When we look at the Fiat 500 in context with its rival subcompacts we can say it has more personality and a higher fun quotient than all but the Mini. Only time will tell whether the quality and dependability issues that so plagued earlier Fiats in the U.S. will come in to play. If I were a betting man, I’d say . . . not to worry.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved