Fiat-Chrysler is banking on the fact that a fair number of Americans want a small car with Italian flair, is fun to drive and delivers good fuel economy--all for a reasonable price.
The front-drive, two-door Italian Fiat 500 is such a car. It comes as a hatchback or Cabrio with five trim levels, three engine horsepower choices and two transmissions.
The Cabrio version is a quasi-convertible with a long sliding power soft top with a clever design.
List prices for the Fiat 500 range from $16,845 to approximately $29,495, but desirable options are rather costly for what is essentially an economy car.
Fiat-Chrysler says several hundred thousand Fiat 500s in various trim levels have been sold in 80 countries since 2007. The car has been offered here with U.S.-style modifications to make it softer and quieter for several years. It's done reasonably well, considering that it debuted with few dealers and has stiff competition from better-known American rivals.
Also, many younger Americans knew nothing about automaker Fiat, which is a large, legendary Italian auto producer that makes all sorts of cars for foreign markets.
While it's billed as a four-seater, the 500's tiny rear seat really makes it a two-seater. There's only room for, say, pre-schoolers in back.
There's plenty of room up front in supportive seats, but the Cabrio's cargo area has a high opening and is small. Chances are a family can't fit a week's worth of groceries in it without flipping the rear seatbacks forward. Doing that significantly increases the cargo area. The 500 hardtop model has considerably more cargo capacity.
Horsepower of the 500's small 1.4-liter engine ranges from a standard 101 to a turbocharged 135 or 160. Transmissions are a slick 5-speed manual or an efficient 6-speed automatic with a manual-shift feature
My test car had the 101-horsepower engine and automatic transmission. It was no fireball like the racy160-horsepower 500 Abarth version, but provided lively all-around performance and decent 65-75 m.p.h. passing times, partly because the 500 isn't very heavy.
Putting the car in "sport" mode with a dashboard control sharpens steering and throttle responses, but I only noticed a slight difference between sport and regular modes during routine urban-suburban driving.
The engine emits a high-rev sound during hard acceleration but isn't objectionably noisy. The interior is quiet when cruising at highway speeds.
Estimated fuel economy of the hardtop 500 is 31 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on highways with the manual transmission, but drops to 27 and 34 with the automatic.
I tested the $22,800 Fiat 500C upscale "Lounge" Cabrio version. However, the bottom-line price was $27,030. The price included a $1,900 option package with such items as leather seats, the $1,350 automatic transmission and a $980 destination charge.
Those on tighter budgets can do without the options. For instance, my test car had a good amount of standard equipment. It included air conditioning with automatic temperature control, speed control, 7-inch color cluster display, premium audio system, power windows and door locks, tilt steering wheel with audio controls,12-volt auxiliary power outlet and 50/50 split folding rear seat.
Safety items included air bags and rear-park assist.
Doors opened wide and had long-but-shallow storage pockets, but I had to flip up the driver's small center arm rest to buckle the seat belt. Controls were clearly marked, but cupholders were set low, and the oddly designed tachometer was hard to read quickly. Dashboard materials weren't impressive.
The steering was precise, but the turning circle was wide for a small car. A nicely designed suspension and electronic stability control allowed my test 500 to handle fast curves without drama. The ride was supple, although a short wheelbase allowed some bumps and freeway pavement expansion strips to be felt.
The four-wheel anti-lock disc power brakes had good pedal feel and impressively stopped my test car.
The quasi convertible top hinders rear visibility when up or down, but outside rearview mirrors help out here.
Like most Italian cars, the Fiat 500 has a special charm that rivals lack.