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2012 Fiat 500 test drive

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2011 Fiat 500 Lounge

2011 Fiat 500 Lounge

Photo © Fiat

Benvenuti in America, Cinqucento! The Fiat 500 (Cinquecento in Italian) marks Fiat's return to the American market after a 27 year absence. Now that Fiat owns a stake in Chrysler, they plan to make Fiat the American automaker's small car division, not unlike what BMW has done with MINI. But there's a reason Fiat left back in 1984 -- their cars weren't rugged enough to make it in the States. So is the new Fiat 500 ready for America -- and is America ready for a new Fiat? Read on.

Larger photos: Front - rear - all photos

First Glance: Something old, something new

The original Fiat Cinquecento was introduced in 1957, an impossibly small car with a miniscule two-cylinder engine mounted in back. Europeans took to the 500 the way Americans embraced the original Volkswagen Beetle, and Fiat built it with few changes for nearly twenty years. Fiat launched a new 500 in 2007; like Volkswagen's New Beetle, the Nuova Cinquecento was very different from the car it was imitating, significantly larger and with the engine up front, although the styling recalled the original 500 (link goes to photo) with remarkable clarity.

The new 500 brought back fond memories in Europe, but here in the States it's a virtual stranger. Nevertheless, Fiat believes the 500 is the perfect ambassador to re-open relations with the US and Canada. No question that with our shaky economy, our new-found interest in small cars, and the success of MINI, we're ready for a car like the Fiat 500.

The last time Fiat sold cars in the States, they earned a reputation for rapid rusting and frequent breakdowns -- Fiat was said to stand for "Fix It Again, Tony!" This time around, Fiat has leveraged their part-ownership of Chrysler to learn more about the American market, and they've updated the Fiat 500 accordingly. The heating and air conditioning have been beefed up to handle our greater climate variations, the gas tank is larger to suit the longer distances we drive, and the front seats are wider because... well, you know.

They've even priced the 500 to suit our smaller-should-be-cheaper mentality. The base-model 500 Pop lists for $16,000 -- $4,100 less than the MINI Cooper, but $2,385 more than a Toyota Yaris -- and that includes air conditioning, cruise control, electronic stability control, and 3 years or 36,000 miles of free routine maintenance. The racy Sport model goes for $18,000, while the top-of-the-line 500 Lounge gets an automatic transmission, BOSE stereo, alloy wheels and Bluetooth for $20,000.

In the Driver's Seat: Colors, colors everywhere

2012 Fiat 500 dashboard

2012 Fiat 500 dash: Cool retro layout and countless color combinations

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

The 500's cabin is all about color and individuality. The seats alone are available in 14 different color combinations, and with its body-color dashboard (also available in 14 shades) and choice of black or white steering wheel and trim, the chances of finding two identical 500s parked next to each other are pretty slim. Once I got over the explosion of color, the next thing I noticed is how small the 500 is. At 64.1" wide, the 500 sits mid-way between the Smart Fortwo and the MINI Cooper, but thanks to big windows and a dash that slopes gently away from the seats, it doesn't feel nearly as claustrophobic as the MINI.

A single pod above the steering wheel houses the speedometer and tachometer, but the clean look of the cabin is spoiled by the optional navigation system, a hard-wired Tom Tom unit that sticks up out of the dashboard like an afterthought. Switches, stalks and buttons have the feel of Italian indifference rather than German precision, but everything's easy to find and use, and visibility is fantastic. And buried under all the bright trim are seven airbags, including one for the driver's knees.

I found the front seats roomy enough, though the bottom cushion comes up short and the over-stuffed thigh bolster only emphasizes the lack of proper thigh support. The tiny back seat is best left to kids (or adults who are inebriated beyond the point of caring). The trunk is actually pretty decent: 9.5 cubic feet, substantially more than a MINI, and dropping the back seat opens up 30.1 cubic feet. Overall, it's a very good interior -- bright, comfortable, and full of personality.

On the Road: Think big

The Fiat 500 is powered by a 101 horsepower 1.4 liter engine. Acceleration is zippy, thanks in large part to the 500's 2400 lb. curb weight (around 400 lbs. lighter than a MINI Cooper). I tried both the 5-speed manual and the 6-speed automatic. The stick-shift is good fun, despite the fact that it highlights the engine's lack of muscle at low RPMs. The automatic does a better job of distributing the power, though it does a lot of shifting, up and down, to keep pace on the highway. Fuel economy estimates are 30 MPG city/38 MPG highway for the manual, but just 27/34 for the automatic -- surprising, as nowadays many small cars get better fuel economy with an automatic transmission. That said, I averaged 32.1 in an automatic 500 in a mix of city and freeway driving.

The most surprising thing is that the Fiat 500 doesn't drive like a small car. It feels big, solid and secure, tracking straight down the highway and cruising happily at 75 MPH. City driving is the 500s forte, but it does just as well on rolling back-country roads -- all 500s have great grip and fantastic balance, although the steering isn't as tight or precise as I would like. I was especially impressed with the Sport, which has heavier steering and a firmer ride and attacks the curves with big-car zeal. I expect the 500 Sport to garner a solid following with enthusiasts, although folks who aren't as passionate about driving will probably be happier with the Pop or the Lounge, which have a quieter and more compliant ride. That said, it takes a curvy road to bring out the 500's fun factor; the MINI Cooper and the Ford Fiesta are much more enjoyable in mundane everyday driving.

Journey's End: Novelty aside, 500 should be a hit

2012 Fiat 500 Lounge rear view

2012 Fiat 500 Lounge rear view

Photo © Fiat

Although the 500 may not strike a familiar chord with Americans the way it does with Europeans, there's no question in my mind that it'll be a hit over here. The Fiat 500 is the right car at the right time: A bright, sunny splash of color just when our country is starting to pick its way out of the economic gloom.

Once the novelty dies down, the Fiat 500 will no doubt have lasting appeal, because it's small, good to drive, cheap to buy and cheap to run. It's less expensive and more comfortable than a MINI Cooper and feels more like a real car than the Smart Fortwo. The 500's best rival is probably the Toyota Yaris hatchback, which shares many of the 500's practical advantages -- small size, great fuel economy, easy parking -- at a significantly lower price. But despite the Yaris' cheeky styling, it just doesn't have the Fiat's personality.

What the Yaris does have is proven reliability, which is still an unknown for Fiat. The 500 is covered by a 4 year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, same as the MINI, and includes 3 years or 36,000 miles of free maintenance, but there's no long-term powertrain coverage.

Would I buy one? As someone who loves to drive, the 500 left me a bit wanting; it's more of a lifestyle vehicle than a driver's car. But that's a personal preference, and the 500 has almost everything else going for it: Small size, low price, cheap running costs, and more character than a parking lot full of Toyotas. If the quality proves to be halfway decent, I think Fiat and the 500 will have a rosy future -- or perhaps I should say un futuro roseo -- here in America. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, details and specs

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