2012 FIAT 500 Sport: No Premium Here for Italian Style

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Of all the vehicles I have tried out over the past two months since joining the VehicleVoice staff, the 2012 FIAT 500 Sport was by far the biggest attention grabber. Even my neighbor, whom I have never heard a word from in over two years, came up to me to inquire about my latest ride. His final words to me: “You’re gonna have a hard time picking up girls with this car.”

Its diminutive size may give the 500 a somewhat feminine gait, but the car no doubt draws looks wherever it goes.  Regardless of the image the FIAT 500 may have portrayed, I was a bit amused by all the stares I got from zipping around town in this car.

Inspired by the original FIAT 500 minicar of 1957, the new 500 pays stylistic homage to that car but takes its soul into the 21st century.  It is certainly one of  the smallest cars for sale in the U.S., which could end up being a challenge for the car…or a unique differentiator.

So how did the little FIAT drive and handle? After all, its looks promise a lot of fun. For such a small car, I expected it to corner effortlessly but came to find that its high center of gravity actually resulted in way too much body roll for my liking – even in this Sport model with stiffer suspension. As for performance, the 101-horsepower coming from its 1.4L 4-cylinder engine did an okay job pulling the Fiat 500 onto freeway on-ramps and up steep grades, but from a dead-stop on straight-aways, nearly 10 seconds would pass before I could get the car to reach 60mph. My bet is that this car will sell on its looks and not performance. However, the 500’s small size did make it fun weaving in and out of traffic. And parking was a breeze.

On the inside, the 500 is surprisingly roomy up front thanks to its tall roof and high seating, and optional panorama sunroof opens things up even further.  The cabin does feel narrow, however, and larger occupants will rub shoulders.  The back seat, not surprisingly, isn’t a place to put adults, but then again, that’s not why one would buy a car like this.

The cloth-and-leatherette bucket seats and Bose premium sound system were nice, but I was even more enamored by the 500’s all-in-one center cluster instrument cluster, with its analog speedometer and tachometer surrounding a digital display. One complaint, though, is that the center console controls are somewhat counter-intuitive: it did take me a couple of minutes to figure out the window controls are actually positioned here and not on the door.

Overall, the FIAT 500 Sport is definitely a quirky and appealing small car that will appeal to people looking for unique wheels without a premium price.  At about $19,000 as equipped, (and that included a moonroof, Bose audio, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, auto climate control, and much more) there’s a lot of content and style for the money, if not necessarily a lot of size.  It’s definitely cheaper than a comparably equipped MINI Cooper.

Question is, is there room in the marketplace for both the FIAT and the MINI?  The MINI has been a success, but it’s definitely bigger than the FIAT and handles like the BMW it is underneath.  Fortunately for the FIAT, it does cost considerably less than the MINI, making a pretty convincing case for those who crave style and uniqueness without a big price tag.

In fact, FIAT may be onto something here.  Over the last few years, consumers have been increasingly drawn to brands and products that represent high style and design without premium pricing.  Witness the recent success of brands like Target, H&M, and IKEA.  Fiat offers Italian style at Japanese econobox prices.  The next cheapest Italian car will set you back six figures.  Will consumers be taken with its offering of high style at reasonable pricing?  We’ll be watching this space, for sure.

SECOND TAKE…Dave Sullivan

Mama Mia!  After spending a week with a yellow FIAT 500 I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  I expected the 500 to have been more Americanized than it was, but even with production in Mexico, it has stayed true to the Italian roots that has made it famous worldwide.  The last FIAT I drove was a Punto Grande Multijet.  It wasn’t what I would consider a memorable car and made me quite curious about the 500.  The 500 has a very nice interior, given the price point.  That being said, the 500 reaches deep into people’s emotions and conjures up feelings of 1979 FIATs during the oil crisis.  OK, FIAT management in 2011 hopes not.  The 2012 500 has come a long way from the last time FIAT was on U.S. soil.

The dimensions of the 500 result in an athletic but cute stance.  Short overhangs make the wheelbase appear longer than it is.  Don’t mistake it for being the same size as a MINI from the pictures.  The 500 is much smaller than a MINI.  I attempted to cram a pregnant 6’1″ wife of mine and a two and a half year old in the 500.  We were basically rubbing shoulders in the front and my daughter was complaining about not having legroom in the back row.  A tight squeeze for a family.  My daughter’s car seat was very difficult to install because the headrest was in the way.

This is a small car, so don’t be put off by the tiny 1.4L engine.  No, you won’t win any races in the 500 but the gearing for the manual transmission is not geared for hitting 40 MPG like other cars.  The 500’s manual transmission is geared to be fun to drive.  Power shift it and all of the gears are ready and willing.  The seats have an odd high seating position.  I eventually got used to it but the lack of a telescoping steering wheel makes things difficult when you’re 6’3″ and 240 lbs.  I was too tall for the sunroof model and actually had to duck down in the one one that Ty reviewed above.  The 500 was livable for me without a sunroof, barely.  My wife told me I looked like a gorilla while driving it.  The average male in the U.S. is 2-inches taller than the average male in Italy, so maybe this explains some of the limited headroom.

The radio is definitely one of the shortcomings.  The display is too small for what it is trying to accomplish, especially when trying to navigate an iPod, but the Bose speakers do an adequate jobs of keeping the small cabin bubbling with tunes.  FIAT, thanks for adding a USB jack and the Chrysler steering wheel switches on the back of the steering wheel!  I have a hard time comparing MINI to the FIAT because the MINI is such a different car but if you are looking for a new small car, the FIAT 500 is appropriately priced just below MINI territory when fully optioned in Lounge trim.  I haven’t had a chance to experience the U.S. market exclusive automatic transmission, so that kept my test car very reasonably priced.  Even in with the Sport trim the suspension never felt busy or overwhelmed due to the small wheelbase.  The fit and finish and NVH were all very good.  Remember, this is a new plant making the 500, so it is good to see a car with the build quality that mine had.  When the car showed up I had a peek at the red painted brake calipers and noticed that the rotors were so incredibly small.  Even with their small size, the 500 never felt like it was lacking.

So, would I buy one?  Maybe if I didn’t have two kids and if I didn’t have two kids, it would have to be the zooty Abarth version.  I’d take it over a Smart and Scion iQ.  The fact is, this is a small car and it isn’t necessarily conducive to carrying more than two people but it’s a real FIAT.  It isn’t some watered down interpretation of the 500 for American tastes.  I found myself driving around Ann Arbor sampling different espressos and craving pasta.  Tony Soprano would even want one.  Yeah, it’s that Italian.

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