2012 FIAT 500

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2012 Fiat 500 — Review

By Marc Lachapelle of MSN Autos
Rating: 8.5

Bottom Line:

The Fiat 500 is a well-sorted-out, practical and solid-feeling small hatchback with sweetheart looks and faultless road manners. Sharp pricing, a generous kit and great selection should seal many deals.
Pros:
  • Retro-classic styling
  • Solid, stable, fun to drive
  • Practical cargo space
Cons:
  • Steering a touch overassisted
  • Middling performance on highways
  • Limited rear seating

View Pictures:  2012 Fiat 500

Model Lineup
The Fiat 500 nameplate was first used in 1937, but the new Fiat 500's styling and design were inspired by the Nuova 500, which was introduced in 1957 and produced until 1975. Fiat style and design chief Roberto Giolito's team has succeeded in creating a larger and perfectly modern subcompact that nonetheless clearly evokes the classic Fiat 500. The chrome "mustaches" on either side of the Fiat emblem that adorns the front fascia are the finishing touch.

Closely derived from the Trepiùno Concept, which was a hit at the 2004 Geneva International Motor Show, the European version of the new Fiat 500 was introduced on July 4, 2007, exactly 50 years after the launch of the Nuova. North American models will be built at the Chrysler plant in Toluca, Mexico, and powered by 1.4-liter Multiair engines manufactured in Dundee, Mich.

The new Fiat 500 is noticeably larger than its cult-car predecessor; at 139.6 inches, it is more than 22 inches longer and 12.1 inches wider. But it is 7.2 inches shorter and 2.2 inches narrower than the current MINI Cooper hatchback, its prime rival. It relies on a transversely mounted front engine to drive its front wheels, whereas the Nuova 500 was a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive microcar.

While numerous adjustments have been made to suit the tastes and expectations of U.S. buyers, the lineup is the same as in Europe. Three trims are offered. The Pop trim comes already well-dressed, with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and door locks, heated mirrors, a multifunction electronic vehicle-information center and seven standard air bags — including one for the driver's knees — in addition to 4-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock braking and standard stability and traction-control systems.

Next up is the Sport trim, which is expected to be the most popular. It gets bolder fascias, larger front grilles, more sculpted side sills, a roof spoiler, red-painted brake calipers, driving lights and a chromed exhaust tip. Sport versions get firmer springs and shock absorbers and a quicker steering feel, plus a tonier exhaust note. They share a standard 5-speed manual gearbox with the Pop trim but are the sole recipients of 16-inch alloy wheels.

The Lounge trim is for style-conscious hedonists, with additional chrome accents, a fixed glass roof and Sirius satellite radio. It gets a richer seat fabric and is the only trim available with leather seats. Its standard Aisin 6-speed automatic gearbox is optional on the other two trims. Lounge and Sport trims share a leather-draped steering wheel with audio controls and a standard Bose audio system with six speakers and a subwoofer that is optional on the Pop version.

The Pop trim is available with Blue&Me hands-free technology, a USB port, an "ecoDrive" application and an iPod control. The ecoDrive and iPod features are standard on the Lounge and Sport, but only these trims can also be equipped with a portable TomTom navigation system with a 4.3-inch touch-screen and fully integrated, steering-mounted controls.

Under the Hood
European buyers can choose from five engines, but North American models rely exclusively on a 1.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that develops 101 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 98 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Fiat's leading-edge Multiair technology distributes intake air cylinder-by-cylinder for every engine stroke by controlling valve movement with electro-hydraulic pistons. Fiat claims gains of 10 percent in horsepower and 15 percent in low-end torque, with a 10 percent improvement in fuel economy and whopping 40 and 60 percent reductions in hydrocarbon and nitrogen-oxide emissions.

Inner Space
The Fiat 500's interior design is also a nod to the classic Nuova 500 and its simple and functional instrument panel. Hard, grainy plastic surfaces on the dashboard, console and door panels are thankfully offset by a full-width, glossy metal inset shaped like an elongated oval and painted the car's body color. Controls are well-laid-out and nicely finished, with additional chrome accents on Sport and Lounge trims. The steering wheel has clear audio- and cruise-control buttons, and the top two trims' leather-draped steering rim is a bonus.

Larger cupholders, a glove box with a closing lid and a driver's seat armrest are among the tweaks and upgrades on U.S. cars. The seats have been widened a bit for the average American's stockier build. The comfy and supportive driver's seat, height-adjustable steering wheel and footrest yield a good driving position. The passenger seat, on the other hand, lacks height adjustment and feels confining for taller riders.

Both front seats slide forward at the pull of a flat lever on the top side of the seat back to ease access to the rear perches. Cushion and seatback also return to their original position, a rarity and a welcome trait. There is barely enough knee- and headroom in the rear seats for the average-size adult, but foot space is generous and scooped-out sides help make it feel spacious.

Rear seatbacks are split 50/50. They have a solid feel and are easily folded forward from the rear with the hatch open. They rest at a shallow angle but add good cargo volume to the very decent 9.5 cubic feet available when they are in their upright position.

On the Road
On the move, the Fiat 500 immediately conveys a sense of substance and solidity far beyond what its small footprint and 2,363 pounds (2,434 pounds with the automatic) would suggest. It feels swift in city driving, where the Multiair engine's surprising low- and midrange torque lets it slice through traffic effortlessly with the automatic gearbox and easier still with the manual. Parking maneuvers are a cinch, with a tight 30.6-foot turning diameter.

The small-displacement engine works much harder at generating good acceleration on highways and the open road. Nonetheless, the Sport trims we tested tackled twisty pavement with impressive poise and agility.

Steering is precise but nowhere as lively and quick as the MINI Cooper's, even in Sport mode. The upcoming Abarth performance version should prove a treat, given the 500's well-sorted-out chassis and tire grip. Its four disc brakes are also fully up to the task, with nice pedal modulation.

Right for You?
Pricing for the Fiat 500 is quite aggressive, given the equipment. Pop trims start at $15,500, Sport versions at $17,500 and the ritzy Lounge is priced from $19,500. A fully bedecked car with all the custom items and trim that good taste can endure would top out at around $25,000.

Fiat has plans for multiple versions of the 500. The open-top 500C trim was launched in the summer of 2011. On the agenda for 2012 is the 500 Abarth, powered by a turbocharged 160-horsepower version of the 1.4-liter Multiair engine, and then comes the fully electric BE-V.

The modern Fiat 500 is a cool, chic, no-nonsense little car that's a joy to drive. The fun has just begun.

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BB01 - 9/15/2014 8:30:29 PM