Fiat 500 has Italian-style fun in the sun written all over it

SAN DIEGO, Ca.: This car screams, “let’s have fun.”

  • Feb. 3, 2011 11:00 a.m.

The 2011 Fiat 500 subcompact looks like fun from any angle and it is.

SAN DIEGO, Ca.: This car screams, “let’s have fun.”

And with a starting price of $15,995, your wallet will be screaming “thank you.”

It’s the 2012 Fiat 500 a subcompact three-door hatchback that exudes dollops of character and Italian style.

Funny how things come around.

The original Fiat 500 (or Cinquecento as it was called then) was a nasty little device only three metres long with a 479 cc, two-cylinder air-cooled engine putting out just 13 hp. It wasn’t much more than a four-wheel moped. But if you had a screwdriver, a hammer and a welding torch, you could pretty well fix anything on it.

With barely enough power to get out of its own way, the problem was not so much going but stopping. With tiny drum brakes about the size of a saucer, the trick was to use engine braking and the gearbox because the diminutive binders would fade after one or two hard applications.

But if you mastered the art of double clutching (as those of you who remember will understand) and trailing throttle braking, you could not just get to your destination but arrive “con brio”.

The “new” Fiat 500 shares little with the original Cinquecento but the name.

It is a combination of exterior post-war Turin retro industrial and interior modern-day Milan chic.

It shouldn’t work but it does.

The exterior lines were inspired by the Cinquecento starting with the whiskers at the front and the sharp tumblehome at the rear.

And just to make sure it stands out even more in a crowd, there are no less than 14 different exterior colours, 11 inside hues and five wheel styles. Depending on how you match them, it’s possible you might never see a duplicate.

Fiat describes the interior as offering “simplified enjoyment.” The dashboard is actually in two halves. The upper portion combines body-coloured accents with frequently used control buttons having chromed circular rings.

The lower half features several large and small storage cubbies for everything from smartphones to USB devices and now, tablets that are springing up everywhere.

The shifter for the either the manual or automatic is incorporated into the lower half with a highly stylized shift lever in black, chrome accents or leather depending on trim level.

The centre console features things undreamed of in the age of the Cinquecento, with storage for small items, a 12-volt power point and, get ready, two cupholders.

Fiat claims it has more cargo space and more backseat legroom than a MINI.

Fiat is the first carmaker I know to offer a hand-held navigation unit. It is part of the Blue&Me communication technology developed with Microsoft. A TomTom unit docks on the top of the dashboard. With a touch screen, it displays maps, real time traffic, weather and more than seven million points of interest. And when you leave the 500, you can take it with you as a guide for walking tours and finding a good restaurant.

When it arrives, the 500 will be available in three trim levels, Pop ($15,995), Sport ($18,500) and Lounge ($19,500).

All share the same engine: a 1.4-litre inline four-cylinder producing 101 hp and 98 lb/ft of torque. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or optional ($1,300) six-speed automatic with manual shift mode. There is also a button on the dash marked “Sport” that changes the shift speed and steering response for more sporty driving.

The engine employs the world’s first Fully Variable Valve Actuation or what Fiat calls its MultiAir system that improves fuel consumption while lowering CO2 by 10 per cent.

In fact, Fiat’s ecoDrive application lets the driver download the engine data on to an ordinary memory stick. When plugged into a computer, it shows the environmental performance including CO2 emissions on each trip.

Fuel ratings are 6.7/5.1L/100 km (42/55 mpg) city/highway for the manual and 7.4/5.7L/100 km (38/50 mpg) city/highway for the automatic.

Front suspension is by MacPherson struts with coil springs and twin-tube shocks with the rear being a twist-beam with coil springs and twin-tube shocks. The exception is the Sport which gets sports tuned shocks and springs.

Braking is discs front and rear.

The 2012 500 comes with 35 safety features, including seven airbags, electronic stability control with traction control, hill start assist, active front headrests and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution.

At the press introduction in San Diego, Chrysler Canada president, Reid Bigland, went on about the advance rave reception the 500 has been getting with 60,000 Canadians already expressing interest. Saying he’s never seen a buzz about the car like this before, he said the appeal crosses all demographics estimating demand, at this point, as being “limitless.”

Well I regularly hear car companies claim consumers are falling over themselves to get their hands on the car, but until now, I’ve never personally witnessed it.

My driving partner and I went to San Diego’s Little Italy, arriving just as the Saturday Italian Mercato (farmers’ market) was in full swing with the streets closed off to make a pedestrian mall. With a lot of begging, the operator lifted the barrier for a promised five minutes, so I could park the car under the Little Italy street banner.

And then it happened.

We were thronged by people wanting to get in, take pictures and tell of their enjoyment driving 500s both old and new. One six-foot, five-inch man slid behind the steering wheel with no headroom or legroom problems.

After 15 minutes, the crowd was continuing to build, so we had to get out and we would probably still be there.

On the drive route, the 500 was everything Fiat had promised. The engine may be small but it’s got a lot of pep. Merging on California’s daunting Hwy 8, the Lounge kicked down nicely and slotting in was a breeze.

With a nice little soprano note coming from the chrome tip exhaust, it was surprisingly quiet at 65 mph with the windows up.

On mountain roads, the handling really was what Fiat called go-kart like and was even better on the manual Sport I drove briefly with its more aggressive suspension.

The 500 is on sale now and the shipments are about to arrive. The 500 three-door will be followed by a cabriolet version in May and the higher performance Abarth in January 2012.

Demand is going to be sky high, so if you want to get in on the fun, do so now. There’s all kinds of info on the website and Facebook page.

Think of the 2012 Fiat 500 as a double shot of expression on four wheels.

Fiat 500 2012

Body Style: Three-door subcompact.

Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel drive.

Engine: 1.4-litre, inline four cylinder (101 hp, 98 lb/ft).

Fuel Economy: Five-speed manual, 6.7/5.1L/100 km (42/55 mpg) city/highway; six-speed automatic 7.4/5.7L/100 km (38/50 mpg) city/highway

Price: (All starting prices) Pop, $15,995, Sport, $18,500, Lounge, $19,500


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