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2012 Fiat 500: The ultimate scooter upgrade

April 10, 2011
Fiat 500 Sport, in black

The new Fiat 500 is not at all quirky. That's a good thing. (Orin O'Neill photos)

Readers of this here blog already know the Vespa is an Italian icon. Equally iconic is the Fiat Nuova Cinquecento (500), the choice of an Italy that by the time of its introduction in 1957 had become prosperous enough to trade up from two wheels to four.

Fiat Nuova 500

Fiat Nuova 500 (Wikimedia Commons)

Millions of Cinquecentos were sold worldwide during its 20-year run. Like the original Vespa, it was minimalist transportation, powered by a rear-mounted 2-cylinder engine of slightly less than 500cc. Also like the original Vespa, many variations were produced, and owners personalized them in literally millions of ways.

In the automobile industry of the early 21st Century, paying homage to icons of the past is a marketing strategy that has proven successful. The Cinquecento was reborn in 2007, on the 50th anniversary of the introduction of its inspirational namesake.

Like its competitors, the new Fiat 500 is a much larger car than the original. It is built on a shortened version of the previous Fiat Panda platform; it is therefore a quite conventional front-wheel drive compact car.

1.4-liter MultiAir engine

Trust me, there's an engine in there. That engine's made in Michigan.

While it is nominally a 4-seater, the 500’s back seats are best thought of as accommodation for small children or medium-sized dogs. With the seats up, the boot will easily hold two or three pieces of soft-sided luggage. Fold the seats, and there’s room for a large dog or a cartload of odds and ends from IKEA.

Fiat 500 boot

You and a friend will have plenty of luggage space for a weekend trip, as long as the luggage is soft.

The front chairs are comfy-firm, with all the usual adjustments. The handles and levers controlling those adjustments are large, easy to grasp and thoughtfully designed. Ditto for the dashboard, which has a big color-coordinated panel that is evocative of the painted metal of the original. The instruments are contained in a large (but not gigantic) round dial, featuring concentric speedometer and tachometer needles. Digital readouts occupy the center of the dial.

Fiat 500 center stack

Center stack is thorougly modern, the switches easy to use.

The center stack is thoroughly modern, well-positioned, and easy to use. The gearchange lever is mounted high, on a section of the dashboard; the 500’s Panda cousin is a van-like people carrier, so this positioning maximizes legroom and flexibility. Shifting is effortless, the lever precise even though it doesn’t feel connected to anything (which is typical of a modern FWD car). The controls for the power door windows are mounted on either side of the lever—counterintuitive, but ultimately easier to operate than would be the case if they were in the door armrests.

Sport alloy wheel

You know this is a sporty car because the brake calipers are red.

On the road, the cabin is quiet; the ride, like the seats, comfy-firm. The Sport trim level (which is what I drove) includes a glass sunroof with the usual power control, and a retractable sunshade. The extra light actually is a thoughtful touch, making the cabin seem larger and airier than would be the case otherwise. The uplevel Lounge has a full glass roof; the 500C, featuring a retractable fabric top, was introduced in June, and an Abarth version with a 170-hp turbocharged engine debuted at the 2011 L.A. Auto Show.

Fiat 500c cabriolet

Fiat 500C features a retractable fabric roof (Fiat USA photo)

The 1.4-liter MultiAir™ engine is a joy, smooth and rev-happy without being obtrusive. It requires premium fuel. Well, Fiats have required premium since the days of the 128. It’s only, what, 20 cents more per gallon? The 500 does 38 mpg highway in the EPA test.

The Sport’s fat tires and “sport-tuned” suspension will have you carving every corner. The scooter roads in the Sammammish Valley took on a whole new dimension in the 500.

But while you have a nice, meaty steering wheel to hold, the 500’s electric power steering is like most other new cars’—numb on-center and generally overboosted, at least for my tastes. There’s a “Sport” button on the dashboard that, when pressed, is supposed to firm up the steering and suspension. The difference is negligible, but most Fiats have this feature. Someone in upper management must like it.

Sport alloy wheel

Fiat took a page from the Piaggio playbook with the Prima Edizione. Expect many special editions.

In a nutshell, the Fiat 500 is not a whole lot different from most other current compact cars. It’s not quirky. It’s not temperamental. Hey, Fiat had to compete with the Japanese and the Koreans just like everyone else, and raised its game a bunch. Fiats don’t suck anymore.

I can’t help thinking one of these would make a nice garage companion for a Vespa GTS. All I’d need is a garage. Favicon

Plus: Thoroughly conventional, comfortable, tossable.

Minus: Small interior, pricey for what you get.

The details

MSRP: $17,500 (Sport)
Built in: Mexico
Construction: Pressed steel unit body w/front subframe
Curb weight: 2363 lbs (1074 kg) (manual transmission)
Length: 140 in (3547 mm)
Width: 64 in (1627 mm)
Wheelbase: 91 in (2300 mm)
Front susp: MacPherson struts w/coil springs, twin-tube shock absorbers & stabilizer bar
Rear susp: Twist-beam axle with coil springs and twin-tube shock absorbers
Front brakes: 10.1-in (257 mm) hydraulic disc w/power assist
Rear brakes: 9.4-in (240 mm) hydraulic disc w/power assist
Front tires: 195/45R16XL BSW all-season
Rear tires: 195/45R16XL BSW all-season
Engine: 1368cc inline 4-cylinder, liquid-cooled w/EFI and electronic ignition
Transmission:   5-speed manual w/single-plate dry clutch
Power/torque: 101 bhp (75 kW) @ 6,500 rpm/98 lb-ft (133 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
  1. April 11, 2011 10:26 am

    Being a bit on the taller side the drawback from considering these cars is the lack of leg room. How’s the leg room on this one?

  2. Jack Riepe permalink
    April 11, 2011 10:36 am

    Dear Orin:

    Cool car… Neat Stuff.

    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  3. April 11, 2011 11:56 am

    When I got in the car to drive it, I had to pull the seat forward two notches, and I’m 5′ 11″. Someone taller than me was able to fit. The front seats are rather upright, and I think you can push them all the way back to where the seat back touches the bottom cushion of the rear seat. And there would be enough room for an occupied front passenger seat to go way forward, so an adult could fit in the back.

    But I think the 500 is best thought of as a 2-seater. I wish I’d had the GTS with me to provide a reference of size; “small” is relative to other cars. The 500 is larger than it might look in pictures.

  4. Rob Thomas permalink
    April 20, 2011 7:56 pm

    Test drove the 500 last week. Couldn’t fit in the sun roof model but managed to squeeze in the regular roof. Well laid out car, agile , fairly quick but it definately is a 2 seater. A little pricey as well.

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