Road Test: The Fiat 500

The legendary Fiat 500 is back in the news as the nameplate’s debut product following the Fiat/Chrysler alliance.

October 11, 2011
by Tony Whitney

Canadian Automotive Review, Print Edition: SEPTEMBER 2011

BODY STYLE: Two-door sedan/cabriolet
ENGINE: 1.4-litre, 4-cylinder 101-horsepower
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual/6-speed automatic
PERFORMANCE: Zero to 100 km/h in approx 12-secs
FUEL ECONOMY: 6.7-litres/100km city; 5.1-litres/100 km hwy. (manual transmission)
PRICE: $15,995 base

Post-WW2 Italy saw some very tough times, and it was years before the auto industry got back into creating new products. In the mid-1950s the economy was still in recovery mode and any car that was going to sell in quantity would have to be cheap, durable and small enough to be usable in crowded Italian towns. Anyone who’s visited Italy over the years would agree that it needed to be diminutive enough to park on the sidewalk—often nose-first between a couple of more conventionally parked vehicles.

The result was the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento, to Italians), which made its debut in 1957 and would endure in one form or another for more than 20 years. The car replaced an earlier Fiat 500—affectionately dubbed “Topolino”—which had been around since the 1930s.

Now the legendary Fiat 500 is back in the news as the nameplate’s debut product following the Fiat/Chrysler alliance. It was an interesting step, but since Chrysler had no “city car” of any kind in its lineup, a logical one. The PT Cruiser, for example, is much larger than the Fiat 500—a different class altogether, though folk who like the PT’s looks might well warm to the Fiat and downsize. The 2012 Fiat 500 is now being sold at selected Chrysler dealers across Canada, mostly in urban areas, reflecting the target markets for this model.

Small vs. tiny
Naturally enough, it’s lot bigger that the old 500, which is no surprise. Very few of today’s buyers would contemplate for a moment any of the tiny cars that crammed the streets of Europe and Asia in the 1950s. They were only just a step up from a 50 cc scooter and that was about it.

We were able to compare old and new Fiat 500s at an Italian car meet; the size difference is about the same as that of a new Mini when placed alongside an original 1960s Austin or Morris model. The new car may be bigger, but it captures the look of the much-loved older model very well indeed.

It would be easy to believe that when the designers started work on the new 500, they had an old model right there in the studio as a reference point. All the primary styling cues are there, from the roofline to the detailing on the bodywork. It’s one of the cleverest recreations of a classic car since we first saw the VW New Beetle and BMW’s Mini Cooper.

This is the first Fiat to be sold in Canada since the 1980s when the automaker withdrew from this market after some fairly good years. At one time, Canadians could buy several models from Fiat—small and mid-size sedans, wagons, sports coupes and roadsters.

The company itself dates all the way back to 1899 when it was formed as Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, later shortened to Fiat. Over the years, Fiat has built all kinds of engineered products—even military aircraft. It is a huge corporation now and owns several vehicle brands, including Italian icons Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia and Alfa-Romeo. Fiat’s Industrial Division builds, among other things, the Iveco truck line which is widely popular in Europe and other regions around the world.

Thus Fiat brings a wealth of experience to small car design and the new 500 (it’s been around in Europe since 2007) reflects a lot of original thinking, despite its semi-vintage looks. The styling is a sentimental re-working of the old 500 theme and it ends up looking very appealing. It attracts a lot of attention out on the road and when you stop, everyone wants to know all about it. Nobody ever looks twice at a new Corolla or Focus.

There seem to be a lot of them out there already, but like all “boutique” vehicle designs, the question is always how things will be going three or four years from now. Hopefully, the little Mexican-built Fiat will earn a permanent place among the growing legions of subcompact and “micro” vehicles available to Canadians.

Room for two
Although it is compact (it’s just 3.55m long), once you climb in it seems roomy, airy and not lacking in shoulder or leg room. This is not the case with the rear seats, as might well be expected. Even with the (exceptionally comfortable) front seats moved a long way forward, there isn’t knee room enough for anyone much beyond kindergarten size. Still, this is not a car for fetching three clients from the airport. It has other promising business roles, as we’ll see later. The cabin may be compact, but there’s a useful amount of trunk space which can be augmented by folding down the rear seats.

The design of the interior is a delight which some might think upstages both the Mini and the VW New Beetle. It looks very “retro” with one big round dial in front of the driver and a radio that looks like it came from a ’57 Chevy. Plenty of use is made of body-coloured mouldings and even chrome plating and the whole effect is great fun to behold. There are some very nifty colours available for this car, inside and out.

Power comes from a 1.4-litre four-cylinder mated to either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine only just nudges beyond 100-horsepower, but since the 500 is small and light, it feels nice and lively and is great fun to drive. It sounds good too, as all Italian-designed powerplants should. Although it’s primarily a city car, it’s perfectly happy on the freeway or even winding mountain roads with steep gradients. The ride is pretty good too and for its diminutive wheelbase, it irons out the surface variations very effectively. It’s not quite as sporty as a Mini, but it comes reasonably close.

Of course, the car is very easy to park and to maneuver in tight city streets. Fuel economy is excellent—an amazingly thrifty 6.7/100km city and 5.1-litres/100km highway with the manual transmission.
With the automatic, the figures are only slightly higher.

For the power-hungry
There are rumours of a modified “Abarth” version coming our way before too long; there’s been one in Europe for a couple of years. Abarth is an old, established Italian tuner and race car builder. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the tiny Fiat 500 Abarths were the terror of European tracks, often besting far more powerful cars thanks to their agility and lightness. Abarth always managed to get more power out of the little engine (in the back in those days) than would seem possible. The current 500 Abarth offers a 135-horsepower turbocharged engine plus aero body modifications and upgraded handling.

There are three versions of the closed sedan 500s: Pop, Sport and the oddly-named Lounge. As you move up the range, leather is added, along with air conditioning and various other goodies. Sport and Lounge versions get cast alloy wheels and the Lounge has a panoramic glass roof.

Drop the top
There’s also a splendid Cabrio variant, which has one of those roll-back fabric roofs so reminiscent of small European cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s—products like the Citroen 2CV and others in that class. Nowadays, of course, there’s no arm-wrenching maneuver to roll back the roof. It’s powered in the new Fiat and a touch of the switch is all you need.

Even the sub-$16,000 Pop has power windows, power locks with remote operation and also power mirrors that are heated—very rare at this price point. All models have anti-lock brakes, stability control, traction control and seven air
bags. It has to be concluded that this new Fiat is very good value indeed.

Obviously, any fleet aspirations Chrysler has for this product are likely to be very specialized. It would be easy to imagine an image-conscious business—perhaps involved in architecture, design, fashion, hospitality or entertainment—putting a few of these little Fiats on the road with appropriate graphics treatment. A lot of businesses have been very successful in projecting a youthful and environmentally responsible image using graphics on Smarts and other small cars.

Hopefully, the Fiat 500 will succeed well enough for the Italian giant to consider bringing other products to North America. After all, they have the vast and respected Chrysler dealer chain at the ready and many buyers seem to be getting a little bored with some of the iconic Japanese nameplates, so the opportunity is there.