After a 27-year absence in the U.S., the red FIAT badge is returning, attached to the front and rear of the 2012 FIAT 500 — “Cinquecento” if you’re Italian. The four-passenger, three-door hatchback 500 is the first vehicle from the FIAT and Chrysler partnership. Available in three models, Pop, Sport and Lounge, the diminutive two-door hatchback goes on sale in January across the country.
The 500 arrives on our shores with some steam behind it. The Italian automaker has sold more than 500,000 500s in 80 countries since it went on sale in July of 2007, the 50th anniversary of the car’s debut in 1957.
Power comes courtesy of FIAT’s 1.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine that uses MultiAir technology. Developed and patented by FIAT, MultiAir powerplants control the intake valves with a hydraulic fluid, continuously varying valve lift and duration. The result is reduced emissions while increasing power and improving fuel economy compared to similar engines. Fuel economy ratings by the EPA are 30 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway when equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, 27/34 mpg with the six-speed automatic.
No Hybrid or EV, For Now
That’s not bad, but pales compared to rumors that the company is working on a version of the FIAT 500 that combines a hybrid system, a smaller TwinAir 900cc two-cylinder engine, FIAT’s dual clutch transmission—and maybe even plug-in capability—to give 100 miles a gallon. In early December, Chrysler and FIAT executives dashed hopes of anything remotely resembling that blend of gas and electric technologies. Instead, Constantinos Vafidis, who oversees transmission and hybrid development at FIAT’s research center in Turin, curiously told Automotive News that compressed natural gas is better green strategy for the United States.
Who knows how this relates to the March 2010 Chrysler press release, in which the company announces that an all-electric version, the FIAT 500 EV, will be produced for the United States in 2012?
Full of Personality
What the conventional FIAT 500 lacks in groundbreaking electric drive technology, it makes up—at least to some degree—with its stylish Italian persona.
FIAT officially unveiled the U.S. version of the conventional 2012 FIAT 500 at the 2010 LA Auto Show. It was the first time that FIAT has held a press conference in Los Angeles since the early 1980s. Against a background of a blown-up photo of herself as a child standing on her Italian grandparents’ original 500, Laura Soave, head of FIAT Brand North America, said, “The new FIAT 500 now brings something truly unique to one of the fastest growing segments in North America, delivering Italian-by-design function, value and efficiency intelligently tailored for our market.”
The 500’s rounded egg-like body and bug-eye headlights are true to the spirit and look of the original, but fully modern in its execution. Sitting low to the ground, the body is given real road presence by the wheel-at-each-corner stance.
A playful interior is full of personality and neat features. Standard on both the 500 Sport and Lounge models is FIAT’s Blue & Me voice-activated Bluetooth technology developed with Microsoft. It is MP3 and iPod-compatible with a USB port and integrated steering wheel controls. The system works seamlessly with an optional TomTom portable navigation device that docks on top of the instrument panel.
The 500’s small exterior size—two feet longer than a Smart ForTwo and six inches shorter than a Mini—does not translate to the interior for the driver and front passenger. Front-seat headroom will handle nearly anyone short of Shaquille O’Neal, and seats are nicely shaped and padded. Those consigned to rear, however, won’t find the same comfort. It is possible to shoehorn two adults into this space, but only with considerable cooperation from those up front.
While the engine’s output of 101 horsepower and 98 lbs.-ft. of torque sounds a little anemic, the curb weight is only about 2,400 pounds. Power is directed to the front wheels via a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Surprisingly, the $15,500 entry-level Pop is equipped with a notable list of standard features: air conditioning, tilt steering column, keyless entry, power windows and door locks and an AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3 input jack. Safety gear for all models includes seven airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability and traction control.
Stickered at $17,500, the Sport offers a retuned suspension and exhaust system, 16-inch tires and alloy wheels, red brake calipers, rear spoiler and interior upgrades such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The top-end Lounge, $19,500, delivers chrome exterior details, glass panel roof, six-speed automatic shifter and more.
FIAT marketing will be skewed towards Millennials, a generation known for its love of personalization. For that group, or anyone else who views cars as more than just basic transportation, a canvas is ready for individual touches. Beginning with 14 choices of exterior paint colors, there’s an arm-long list of customization accessories that totals more than a half a million combinations for owners to make a 500 their own.
Are the FIAT 500’s vintage charm, expected fun-to-drive characteristics, exceptional pricing and excellent fuel economy enough to win over U.S. car buyers? FIAT thinks so. “The modern version of the FIAT 500 is the symbol of true Italian design and is a perfect expression of what the world expects of Italian cars,” said Soave during the LA introduction. “The unique character of the Cinquecento, along with class-leading safety, fuel economy, quality and a focus to offer a unique experience to our customers, will help us to reestablish the FIAT brand in the North American market.”