Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fiat 500 Brings Cuteness into the Present

I've waited for a while for a chance to drive the tiny Fiat 500. With Fiat's control of Chrysler, the popular European brand is back in the U.S. for the first time since the early 1990's. After a week with a new 500C (convertible), I'm very happy to say it was worth the wait.

The original 500's were popular in Europe from the 1950's until 1975. Like the VW Beetle and the Mini, small cars were the only kind that most people could afford. Now, all three models are enjoying new life in modern configurations.

Like the MINI, today's car dwarfs the old one, and its 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower engine is much more powerful than the .5 and .6 liter originals. But it's a different world now, and the American road is full of SUVs and "midsize" sedans.

Tooling around in the 500 is lots of fun, especially with the five-speed manual transmission. The little engine (for which premium fuel is recommended) feels peppy off the line, and acceleration up to freeway speeds is fairly robust. I drove for a couple of hours on the freeway and it was quiet in the cabin and felt stable despite the short wheelbase.

Fuel economy is rated at 30 City, 38 Highway--good numbers for anything that's not a hybrid.

The interior is awash in circles for everything from the gauges to the vents to the speakers to the headrests. The big black ball shift knob has an inscribed shift pattern. The feeling is retro but not slavishly so. The original car was pretty basic but this one has lots of style.

People asked me for rides to check it out. Yesterday's rider, Rafi, noted that the styling may be better than the MINI's because it is less cartoonish while still being charming. I think he has a good point.

The 500C offers a convertible top that is essentially a giant cloth sunroof. You can open and close it at up to 50 miles per hour and let the light, sound and scents of the world in.

Prices start at about $15,500 for the basic hatchback but my convertible, in the lower level model, was about $21,500. There are some cheaper small cars but none are as much fun to drive or own.

500's old and new recently appeared in Cars 2. That, along with advertising and press reports, will help get the Fiat brand back into people's consciousness again.


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