2012 Fiat 500 Road Test Review

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Despite its diminutive size, the 2012 Fiat 500 is a humongous deal for the new Chrysler. Expected to be a volume leader for the company, Chrysler has plans to sell more than 50,000 of them in North America the first year. After spending a day with the Fiat that target seems more than plausible, and here's why.

It's cute, and if the successes of first the Mazda Miata, then the VW New Beetle, and most recently the Mini Cooper and the smart fortwo proved anything at all, it's that North American consumers will buy cute cars. The 500's delightfully egg-like shape, fronted by a mustachioed face sporting a goofy grin, is going to attract people like an electromagnet in a bag of needles. Add to that an interior that was obviously styled by Italians, and the car comes to market with a distinctive design and a playful attitude that will make people stop, stare and smile.

Powered by a 1.4-litre inline four-cylinder engine producing 101 horsepower and 98 ft-lbs of torque on premium unleaded fuel, with its five-speed manual transmission the 500 is expected to travel 7.8 litres of fuel for each hundred kilometers it travels in the city, by much more realistic equivalent U.S. EPA standards, 6.2 on the highway and 7.1 overall. With the six-speed automatic (developed exclusively for the U.S. market), the 500 is good for 8.7 city, 8.1 highway and 7.8 overall (Canadian ratings are 6.7 city and 5.1 highway for the manual and 7.4 city 5.7 highway for the automatic). Good numbers, but not quite as high as many pundits expected for a car so small. Many point to the 5.8 L/100km equivalent EPA rating achieved by Hyundai's Elantra and the Eco version of the Chevrolet Cruze and wonder why those numbers aren't higher.

However, nobody disputes the 500's potential for smiles per gallon.

The suspension system, specifically calibrated for the North American market, enables the 500 to corner nicely, with just a bit of understeer dialed in to save average drivers from themselves. The car rides smoothly and is comfortable over uneven surfaces. The steering is remarkably accurate and the Fiat, as you'd expect, has a tight turning radius. An ideal city car, the Fiat 500 is laughably easy to park.

Over the road, the car goes the way its looks lead you to believe it would. Not so much a performance car as it is an urban runabout, the 500 will do highway duty, but seemed happier bopping around the city. Wind noise and tire roar at speed were quite noticeable, although the engine had a pleasant sound. On winding mountain roads, to get any useful thrust out of the engine, revs needed to be kept above 4,000 rpm to take advantage of the 98 ft-lbs of torque the little car has at its disposal. The action of the five-speed manual felt great and the pedals are perfectly arranged for heel and toe downshifts, but this Fiat really isn't about ripping and zipping.

The 500 is more about getting from Starbucks to the movies with style and whimsy. The interior of the car bears this out immediately. Just looking at it, the interior of the 500 is absolutely delightful with its idiosyncratic shapes and colour schemes. The colour-keyed dash picks up the exterior colour of the car, and the two-tone seating brightens the interior considerably.

But interacting with it reveals some rather significant flaws. Fiat's reliance on hard plastic for the dash and door panels in an age of soft touch everything is a bit disappointing. Also, while the driver's position is pretty well sorted, the passenger has to sit slightly canted toward the driver to contend with the intrusion of the right front wheel well. Additionally, long legged passengers will find their knees well acquainted with the 500's centre console and door handle. The seating position was a bit high, leaving one to feel as if they're sitting on the 500 rather than in it-but on the other hand, outward visibility is first rate.

Used for quick jaunts around the city, these issues probably won't present themselves as much of a problem. First users will be so enamored with the 500 they probably won't even pick up on those annoyances. It is only after spending a significant amount of time in the car that these discomforts manifest themselves.

Overall though, the 2012 Fiat 500 should play well in this market. With pricing starting at $17,395 including destination charges, a number of people will be quite charmed by the little Italian car.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, Fiat, 2012, 500, $10,000 - $19,999,

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