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Three promising Fiats that might be on U.S. roads

TURIN, Italy — If all goes as planned for Chrysler's restructuring, the first Fiats could hit U.S. roads and selected Chrysler dealerships in as little as a year. Large numbers of Fiat-engineered cars could be rolling out of Chrysler factories in North America by mid 2011. The 500 minicar, MiTo subcompact and Delta compact showcase the best of Fiat's modern products in the three classes that are its strength and Chrysler's weakness. Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press

Lancia Delta

The Delta four-door hatchback from Fiat's luxury brand offers a roomy and comfortable interior, trimmed in supple leather and with soft-touch materials at most of the places a driver will touch.

Like all the cars I tested, it came with Blue & Me, the system Fiat developed with Microsoft to manage iPods, mobile phones and other devices.

The 1.8-liter twin-turbo four-cylinder gasoline engine generated 180 horsepower and plenty of torque for confident acceleration and fast cruising on the autostrada. At high speeds, the car remained smooth, quiet and stable.

The climate control system was excellent.

The Delta shared one shortcoming with every Fiat I drove: tiny cupholders sized for Red Bull cans, not the big containers typical of American drinks.

Fiat 500

The award-winning 500 is 139.6 inches long, 6 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper.

Like the Mini, the 500 offers retro charm and modern features, but the 500 costs several thousand dollars less than the Mini. The 500's front seat offers plenty of room, while the rear seat is serviceable. The arcing roofline provides excellent headroom.

The interior design is charming, with body-color plastic trim and the speedometer and tachometer arranged in concentric rings on a single gauge in front of the driver.

The interior materials in the car I tested consisted of pleasant checked fabric upholstery and hard plastic trim on the dash and doors.

The base 500 comes with a 1.2-liter engine in Europe. Like Mini, which does not ship its base model to the United States, look for Fiat to sell only the more powerful, sportier versions of the 500 in North America.

Alfa Romeo MiTo

Alfa's sexy two-door subcompact MiTo (pronounced "Mee-Toe") takes its name from Milano (Milan) and Torino (Turin), the neighboring cities in northern Italy that have been the brand's home. Alfa was founded in Milan in 1910. It built its reputation with a string of legendary sports cars. Fiat, which was founded in nearby Turin in 1899, acquired Alfa in 1986.

The 155-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine sings, and the six-speed manual transmission is sweet and smooth.

The black interior wraps around the driver, seats hugging you and all the controls easily at hand. The materials are an appealing mix of black leather and soft-touch trim, with a few carefully placed pieces of brightwork.

From its V-shaped grille to its round taillights, the MiTo is a stylish Italian riposte to hot hatchbacks like the Audi A3 and Honda Civic Si.

Three promising Fiats that might be on U.S. roads 06/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 4:30am]
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