Fiat has returned to America for the first time in decades — the first Tampa Bay dealership opened last month — and the automaker is starting off with the little car that built its reputation in Italy. Ah, reputation. The last time around, Fiat's wasn't so good. So the company that controls Chrysler now has two images to polish.
Appearance: Okay, it's cute. Our families took to calling it "Luigi" after the character in Cars. In size, the tiny 500 falls between a Smart Car and a Mini. Fiat did a great job of updating the original cinquecento, keeping its bubbly look, rounded corners and a front end that's not much more than headlights and a Fiat badge. We got a lot of curious looks, questions ("It's cute, what is that?") and even thumbs-ups from truck drivers and recumbent bicyclists. Fiat did retro right.
Performance: The 500's 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower 4-cylinder engine gives new meaning to "gradual." In the city — and this is a city car — you may not notice the lack of power, but merging into interstate traffic can be a challenge. The automatic transmission does the best it can to maximize the motor's output (there is a sport setting; Peter kept it on), but Lyra found the shift from first to second a bit jerky. We'd like to try the manual gearbox. Peter has to wonder: Do those hoping for a less-expensive Mini alternative have unrealistic expectations? Lyra, a Mini fan and former owner, found the Mini superior in comfort and performance. The 500 is no go-cart. It does have some body roll in spirited driving and rides like what it is: a really small car. Still, the handling is deft, and it's not an unpleasant ride; the looks alone make it fun to drive. The mileage is good with the manual (30/38) and not impressive with the automatic (27/32).
Interior: Our tester was the more expensive Lounge trim, which adds the automatic transmission, premium two-tone leather seats (bright red and white) and a Bose audio system. We liked the multitiered instrument cluster that includes the speedo, tach and information center. The interior is a mix of attractive hard and soft surfaces. The shifter is mounted within easy reach on the console. Up front, the 500 is relatively roomy, except the seats are mounted high (with no adjustments for the passenger), which can compromise headroom. The rear seats, on the other hand, lack legroom and comfort, even for small kids. The trunk is also tiny. The 500C is a cabriolet, or convertible. The top is more like a large sunroof, with fabric that slides back accordion-style along the roof frame. But when opened all the way — the farthest of three positions — rear visibility is severely limited.
Our 3 favorites
Cup holders: The small car can hold large drinks in the console — a concession to Americans?
Style: I like the retro update and eye-catching look.
Fun: The form (design) makes the function (driving) fun.
Cabriolet: A different way to enjoy the open air.
Gauges: Creative combination of tach, speedo and info.
Groovy: The red, white and dark gray interior and red roof are retro chic.
The bottom line: We have a split decision. Lyra found it adorable, but barely adequate for a driver. Peter thought it was a fun and stylish city car. We both can't wait for next year's turbo version and its 170 horsepower.