2012 Fiat 500 Review

2012 Fiat 500 - Italy's Fiat hopes for a successful return to America with its cute, small 500 model.


The new 2012 Fiat 500 is downright cute and fun to drive, besides being fuel-thrifty.

Many young drivers interested in the 500 may never have heard of  Fiat's reputation for selling troublesome cars here decades ago. But then, Italy's Fiat wasn't the only troublesome foreign car, and it's a whole new auto world now. The 500 is built with modern equipment that didn't exist in Fiat's spotty old days. when some joked that "Fiat" stood for "Fix it again, Tony."

The 500 is hardly unproven. Chrysler-controlled Fiat says more than 500,000 Fiat 500s have been sold in 80 countries since 2007. The 500 resembles Italy's revered Cinquecento (500 in Italian), which arrived about a half century ago. Almost 4 million Cinquecentos were made between 1957 and 1975.

The two-door 500 is a front-drive two-door hatchback. It's very similar to the European version, but is quieter and has a smoother ride. It's shorter than a Mini Cooper, but I never got the impression I was in a small car when driving it. That's partly because it's reasonably quiet, the front seats slide back a lot and the windshield is large.

Also, while the car's suspension is choppy when driven on bad roads, its ride is pretty smooth on decent pavement, with wheels pulled to the far corners of the body for a longer wheelbase.

There's plenty of room up front, but the backseat is tight for anyone but kids or shorter adults. The cargo area has a rather high hatch opening, but is fairly roomy-at least for a small car. And rear seatbacks flip forward and sit reasonably flat to enlarge it.  

The 500 comes in three versions: the entry level $15,500 Pop, sportier $17,500 Sport and more luxurious $19,500 Lounge. The names may sound as if they came from Italy, but were thought up in America. Buyers are expected to include young trend setters and aging baby boomers who want a practical, fuel-efficient car that's fun to drive.

The 500 is especially suited to crowded, import-car-oriented urban areas in such states as Los Angeles and New York.

Even the Pop has such items as air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio, speed control and power windows, door locks and mirrors.

Safety equipment for all 500s includes seven air bags and electronic stability control.

Laura Soave, who heads the Fit brand in North America, feels at this point, at least, that most Americans will opt for the Sport version, She says that's because it doesn't cost a lot more than the Pop and has "sport-styled seating," improved sound system and a sport suspension and wider wheels for more responsive handling.

Many may not notice, but the Sport looks a bit different than other 500s with distinctively styled front/rear fascias, new bodyside sill cladding and a roof-mounted rear spoiler.

The Pop and Sport come with a crisp-shifting five-speed manual transmission, which works with a light but long-throw clutch, or a responsive six-speed automatic with a manual-shift feature.

The Lounge is sold only with the automatic and has chromed accents, premium cloth seats, upgraded sound system and a fixed glass roof. A power sunroof is optional for all models.

Coming fairly soon are convertible, turbocharged and electic 500 models

The 500 can be had in 14 different colors, and there's a large number of accessories to personalize the car.

The 500 has a small-but-sophisticated 1.4-liter "MultiAir" four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. Its 101 horsepower is enough to deliver lively in-town performance and decent 65-75 mph passing on highways, partly because the car only weighs 2,363 to 2,434 pounds. It'll do 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds,. That's not half bad, but expect the turbo version to be much faster.

Front cupholders sit low near the underside of the dash, and two rear ones are on the center of the rear floor. The glovebox is large, while door pockets are long but shallow.
Sun visors are small.

Steering is fairly quick, with decent road feel, and handling is good enough to make the 500 fun to drive. Pushing a "sport" dashboard button makes the car feel a little more lively. The brake pedal has a reassuring firm action.

Dashboard controls are large and easily reached, although bright sunlight washes out gauge readings..The dash is painted the same color as the 500's body, as was the case with classic Ferrari dashboards. The driver's seat has a manual height adjuster that should be especially appreciated by shorter folks, and the steering wheel has a manual tilt feature.     

The engine is moderately noisy during fast acceleration and its small size calls for lots of revs and shifting (with the manual) for the best performance. With the manual transmission, fifth gear is strictly for highway cruising. The best passing gear on highways is third, and second gear is best for quick moves in congested traffic.

The tachometer, which measures engine revs, is too small to read quickly. It resides in the speedometer housing.

Estimated fuel economy is 30 mpg in the city and 38 on highways with the manual and  and 27 and 34 with the automatic. Fiat says 87-octane gasoline is "acceptable," but that 91-octane is "recommended." Fuel tank capacity is 10.5 gallons.

The 500's large doors open wide to make it easy to enter or leave the front seats, and both those seats slide forward to allow easier entry to the rear-seat area.

Italian cars often have some quirky features, and the 500 is no exception. For instance, the end of the hood prop fits in a hole in one of the hood hinges-an awkward setup. Both the interior of the hood and hatch are lined for more cockpit quietness.

The 500 has Italian style, fuel efficiency and practicality going for it. Those who still are Fiat doubters should know the car also has a four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and four years of unlimited roadside assistance.

Dan Jedlicka

Dan Jedlicka's Website

Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

For more reviews from Dan, visit Facebook.