2012 Fiat 500 Review

2012 Fiat 500 - High mileage, low price and lots of flair.


PLUSES: High mileage, low price, easy to find space to park. Stability control and side curtain air bags standard. Pleasant ride for such a small car.
MINUSES: Small size, tight rear seat that's difficult to enter or exit, limited cargo space without folding rear seat backs.  
About 30 years ago Fiat automobiles roamed the streets of this country alongside Chevy, Ford, and Dodge nameplates.
The joke at the time was that Fiat, from Italy, stood for Fix It Again Tony, an expression that usually was awarded a chuckle, though today it would initiate an investigation from the politically correct police.
When Fiat left the U.S. about 30 years ago, in large part because fixing it again and again and again was no longer a joke even for Tony, few suspected it would return. But it has, thanks to coming to the rescue to help save Chrysler Corp. from becoming a footnote in automotive history alongside American Motors Corp.
First up from the new Fiat stable is a little subcompact mini machine called the 500 that's aimed at attracting those who demand high mileage and low purchase price.
The 2012 model Fiat line is represented by a 2-door hardtop sold in Pop, Sport, and Lounge versions, as well as a convertible derivative in Pop or Lounge trim, the first vehicles to be sold in the U.S. by Fiat after helping bail Chrysler Corp. out of financial trouble and taking command of the U.S. automaker.
Pop (base price $15,500), Sport ($17,500), and Lounge ($19,500) hardtops and the Pop ($19,500) and Lounge ($23,500) convertibles boast 30 m.p.g. city and 38 m.p.g. highway mileage with the standard 5-speed manual, 27/34 with the optional
($995) 6-speed automatic, and about 400 miles travel on a tank of gas before need to pause and refill.
Pop and Sport come with 5-speed manual as standard, 6-speed automatic as optional ($995). Lounge only offers automatic.
At $15,500 the 500 certainly lives up to the low cost billing, though at $23,500, it isn't exactly a blue plate special in the economy car segment.  
With a 30 m.p.g. city and 38 m.p.g. highway rating, it has the credentials to boast of being a high mileage alternative to a gas/electric hybrid.
Fiat insiders, by the way, insist that if you use a light touch to the accelerator pedal, you should beat the government estimate and top 40 m.p.g.
However, be advised that Fiat has two other 500 versions coming soon, a high performance turbocharged rendition called Abarth that arrives in early 2012, and a higher mileage battery powered electric EV that goes on sale in late 2012.
Those two models suggest that the 1.4 liter, 101 h.p. four cylinder offered now could use a more energetic companion, and that while the 38 m.p.g. highway rating is good, an electric would travel 38 miles and more without having to burn a drop of fuel.
Fiat won't say what the turbo will mean in terms of boosting horsepower, saying only that in European models it adds 30 to 50 h.p. Fiat also won't talk about the expected range of travel with its EV before having to pause to recharge.
We tested the 2012 Sport with 5-speed manual as well as the top of the line Lounge cabrio with 6-speed automatic.
To manage steep inclines more swiftly the little four could use some added energy. While the four cylinder develops enough power to get you where you want to go, a turbo model would get you there even quicker. The 5-speed manual helps get optimum oomph out of the engine.
But Lounge with automatic is no slouch in getting away from the stop light or pulling out to pass. And the automatic doesn't growl. But whether manual or automatic, don't worry about a chap waving a checkered flag at you as you pass.
That's a more likely scenario with the Abarth.
The Fiat 500 is small, though a Smart from Mercedes-Benz makes the Fiat look like a giant by comparison. The Fiat 500 is built on a 90.6 inch wheelbase and is 139.6 inches long, Smart on a meager 73.5 inch wheelbase and only 106 inches long. The Fiat makes the Smart look like it belongs on a pre-school playground.
The Fiat is small enough to make parking a snap. If you can't parallel park a 500, you shouldn't be allowed to drive.
The 500 has two rows of seats, Smart only one. But the second row is best used to carry packages, not humans. An adult friend managed to slip into the back seat, but it nearly took an act of Congress to get her out of it.
Surprisingly, the cargo hold behind the rear seat handled a large suitcase plus briefcase with room for at least one more small piece of luggage and a laptop.
If seat backs are lowered, the cargo hold expands a great deal. The trick is that for the seat backs to fold flat, the front seats have to be moved a bit closer forward. Access to cargo is through a wide opening rear hatch lid.
One problem up front is that the 500 isn't as wide as many would like. Driver and passenger will rub shoulders and bump arms at times. The driver can reach over and open the passenger side door as well as open the glove box and remove the owner's manual without ducking below the dash and leaning away from the steering wheel. The passenger, meanwhile, can reach over through the driver's window and grab the bag of burgers at the drive through window.
Before you ask, nope, there are no plans for a 4-door version, though a driver's side rear access door like some pickup trucks offer would make it easier to load gear and stuff in the back seat.
While snug, the cabin isn't cheap, but rather well appointed and fashionably color coordinated. Controls are all easy to see and don't require a degree in electronics to get them to work.
The 500 doesn't skimp on amenities, with stability control standard, along with side curtain air bags, heated power outside mirrors, automatic temperature control, 5 cupholders (3 front, 2 rear), 12 volt power outlet, keyless entry,
AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio, auxiliary input jack, USB connection, Bluetooth hands free phone connectivity, satellite radio, Bose sound, power windows, and rear window washer/wiper/defroster. Seats are manual, not power controlled.
Options on the Sport test car were limited to a power sunroof at $850, and a micron air filter with the automatic temperature control at $150.
One gripe: When the sunroof is open the wind noise is pronounced in the cabin and requires turning the radio volume up to a level that could vibrate the wax from your ears. Ditto on noise with the windows open.
Ride is good despite the small dimensions. It's not soft and cushy, but occupants aren't bounced around the cabin like ping pong balls, either. Since this is first and foremost a 38 m.p.g. car, you can't expect and don't experience pinpoint sports car handling.
Pop and Lounge offer 15 inch radials, Sport 16 inch all seasons. Sport also has tuned shocks, modified spring rates, and recalibrated steering for more responsive handling, though at the cost of a firmer ride. The Lounge convertible was less harsh over the road.
A "sport" button in the dash automatically changes transmission shift points as well as steering effort for quicker reaction to throttle input for more spirited response to pedal input when motoring away from the light, passing, or moving into and out of corners.
Unlike Smart, which tends to lurch forward every time the automatic transmission shifts gears, the 500 shifts smoothly without forcing the driver to bob forward and back again, whether the 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic.
As for the Lounge convertible, it is cuddly cute. The convertible soft top is power operated and unlike the traditional top. Push the button and rather than the top lifting up and then retreating down to hide in a compartment in the trunk, this top simply slides back and as it does it folds accordion style until it reaches the rear window. No need to waste precious cargo space to house the top when it can simply sit there open and out of the way.
Rather than the hatchback lid with the hardtop models, the convertible has a small tailgate below the rear window that opens to allow storing luggage or groceries inside.
The 500 is the first Fiat branded car in the Chrysler lineup added to take advantage of gas prices. In future years look for Chrysler to rely more on Fiat for small car technology and Fiat to rely more on Chrysler for big car technology.
Next year Dodge will add a compact sedan based on Fiat architecture. Stay tuned, more sharing will follow.
While the 500 is on sale now, only 58 of the 130 total dealers that Fiat plans to have up and running by year end are open. To find the dealer nearest you, visit the Fiatusa web site or call 1-800-FIATUSA (1-800-342-8872)

2012 Fiat 500 Sport 
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
Length: 139.6 inches
Engine: 1.4 liter, 101 h.p., four cylinder.
Transmission: 5-speed manual.
Mileage: 30 m.p.g. city/38 m.p.g. highway.
Base price: $17,500.
as equipped:
Add $500 for "brilliant" red paint, $850 power sunroof,
$150 automatic temperature control, and $500 freight.

Jim Mateja

Jim Mateja enjoyed a 42 year career with the Chicago Tribune before retiring in 2007 as the newspaper's automotive columnist. He received numerous awards for his reporting and writing, including the National Automotive Journalism Association's "Moto" award for best regularly published column and automotive feature writing, and a Best in Show award for his test ride of a horse in conjunction with the Tribune's 150th anniversary. He also earned the Detroit Press Club Foundation's Gold Wheel Award for best car reviews, and a Tribune Professional Performance Award for his column and regular reporting. He still writes occasional car reviews for the Tribune, is one of the nation's 50 automotive journalists who serve as members of the North American Car of the Year judging panel, and is a panel member who helps select Best Buys for "Consumers Digest" magazine. Mateja also is the founding President of the Midwest Automotive Media Association.