2012 Fiat 500 — Review
By Marc Lachapelle of MSN Autos
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
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
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?
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.