Cute and cool as it is, the new Fiat 500 is a bit lost on most Americans. Back in Europe, the Fiat 500 occupies the same places in people's hearts and minds as the original Volkswagen Beetle does here in the States. The original 500 was the people's wheels for millions of Europeans -- including Alfredo Gulla, owner of Alfredo's Foreign Cars in Larchmont, NY. Alfredo has been selling Fiats in the US since... well, since the last time Fiat was in the States, and with the arrival of the new 500, he is once again a Fiat dealer. A true enthusiast, he was only too happy to let me experience the original Cinquecento.
Like the Beetle, the Fiat 500 was built for decades with few modifications -- fewer even than the Bug, and the bright-red 1972 500 I drove was little changed from the car Fiat first introduced in 1957. My test car was a 500 Rinnovata (Renewed); improvements included a synchronized transmission and a bigger, more powerful engine -- a 594 cc air-cooled two-cylinder (link goes to photo) producing all of 23 horsepower (up from 499 cc and 17 hp in the previous version; the original 500 had 13 hp). The Rinnovata was the last version produced before Fiat discontinued the 500 in 1975, by which time they had produced over three and a half million.
Small outside, big inside
Tiny as it is -- compared to a Smart ForTwo, the Fiat 500 is ten inches longer, ten inches narrower, and just over half the weight -- the 500 is actually quite spacious, provided your passenger keeps his elbows to himself. The minimalistic front seats are surprisingly comfortable, and big (relatively speaking) windows and a lack of roof-crush regulations when the 500 was designed make for thin pillars and excellent visibility. I never did figure out how the seat belts worked, but I figured that if I collided with another car, they probably wouldn't help much anyway.
The body-color dash may be a styling feature of the new 500, but it was an economic necessity on the original. Like other 500s, the R has a fabric sunroof, which not only lets in sun and wind, but also saves the cost and weight of a metal panel. The 500R reverted to the instrumentation of the original: A speedometer and nothing else. Instead of a tachometer, the speedo is marked to show the top end of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gears (15, 25, and 40 MPH, respectively). There isn't even a gas gauge, just a small red light labeled benzina that glows when the tank gets low. Other warning lights include luci (lights), olio (oil), and generat (short for generatore -- generator).
On the road with the Fiat 500
A key at the center of the dash turns the ignition on, but starting is accomplished by two small levers between the seats, just ahead of the handbrake. One controls the choke, the other is the starter. My test car's engine fired immediately and settled down to a peculiar, puttering idle. The air-cooled engine warms up quickly, and within a couple of minutes the choke was off and the 500 was ready to go.
Of course, with just twenty-three horsepower, "go" is a relative term. The gas-pedal travel is maybe two inches, and that's all you need. Initial acceleration is foot-to-the-floor, and with two people on board (my stepfather accompanied me for the journey) the 500 accelerates with all the urgency of a light breeze.
Our 500's benzina light was flickering as we left, so we pulled into the nearest gas station. The 500's engine is tucked into its tail, so the gas tank lives in the front "trunk". It holds just 5.5 gallons, but with fuel economy of around 55 MPG, that's plenty.
Benzina light extinguished, we hit the mean streets of Larchmont, New York, and headed south into my home town of New Rochelle. The synchronized 4-speed transmission makes shifting easy, but with no rev limiter on the engine, I had to keep a careful eye on the speedometer. By accelerating hard and shifting at the last minute, I was just about able to keep up with some of the slower trucks, although the 500 scoots along quite eagerly once it builds up a head of steam -- at least, as long as the road stays flat. On hills, maintaining a 40 MPH pace requires advanced planning and quick downshifts. Top speed is supposed to be somewhere in the high 50s, although Alfredo told me he was able to crack 100 km/h (62 MPH) back home in Italy.
Power-assisted steering and brakes are luxuries that the 500 just can't afford. Brake-pedal effort is surprisingly high, and it takes a firm foot to bring the 500 to a halt. Although the steering is rather vague on center, it has a nice feel and weight in the curves -- not overly light, but not unbearably heavy. The air-cooled engine is noisy, but it sounds fantastic, and the ride is surprisingly compliant and comfortable.
And the handling? I'll be honest, I wasn't able to get the Fiat moving quickly enough to evoke so much as a squeal from the dinner-plate-sized tires. The concept of “slow in, fast out” doesn't exist in a 500. One needs to carry in as much speed into the curves as one dares, and with no clue as to what the Fiat 500 would do -- and the fact that it wasn't my car -- I didn't try anything crazier than flinging around a couple of corners at the top of second gear. Which, by the way, the 500 was all too happy to do. I'm told that the 500 is biased towards oversteer (fishtailing), but it's possible to dial that back to light understeer by putting a couple of heavy suitcases in the back seat.
A most unusual drive
Driving a 500 proves that patience is rewarded. While it takes a while to get up to speed, the 500 is a hell of a lot of fun. I talk about cars that are involving to drive, but the 500 brings this concept to a new level -- you have to know your route and think ahead just to keep up with traffic (and avoid getting squashed like a bug). It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. No wonder so many Europeans fell in love with this thing!
A special thanks to Alfredo Gulla for turning me loose in one of his pristine 500s. If you're in the metro New York area, you can see a couple of original Cinquecentos -- and test-drive the new one -- at Alfredo's Foreign Cars. Grazi, Alfredo! -- Aaron Gold