2012 Fiat 500 Lounge HD Video Review

Lately, if you wanted an Italian car it was either a Maserati, Lamborghini or Ferrari.  Nice, but most people can’t afford the taxes on them let alone the actual car or its maintenance.  Now there’s a third option- Fiat. Yes, Fiat is back in America… if you live in Los Angeles.  For many cities it’s happening all throughout the year with many stores going into former Saturn and Hummer buildings.  Lets all head out to Buca di Beppo and celebrate.

New 2012 Fiat 500

In their return Fiat is starting small, both in lineup and footprint of the car.  The only vehicle for now is the 500, affectionately known in Italy as the Cinquecento or Topolino.  At a petite 139.6 inches it’s nearly 7 inches shorter than a MINI Cooper.

Choose from 3 models, Pop, Sport and Lounge.  Coming in time for summer is a cabrio version, early in 2012 the high performance Abarth version arrives.  Think VW GTI left in a dryer too long.

A Little Heritage (Pun Intended)

The original 1957 Nuevo 500 is the vehicle that brought everyday transportation back to a post-war Italy and it remains an icon today.  The doors opened backwards and the air-cooled engine was in the rear, much like a VW Beetle.  Unlike the Vee Dub it never became popular in the US.  Fiat brought it back in modern form in 2007.

New Fiat 500 Sport (North American model)

The 500 best known to Americans is the character Luigi in the Pixar movie “Cars”.  The fashionable tire shop owner sells Lightning McQueen a slick set of whitewalls for his date with a Porsche.  So much for Italian style…

The 2012 model recalls the classic style and affordable mission of the original but the engine now rides in the front and the doors open the way people expect.  It’s also larger to accommodate today’s bigger people (curse you Buca di Beppo).  500s sold in North America are made in Mexico and get a number of changes over the Euro version.  Most important is a six-speed automatic transmission and enhanced noise, vibration and sound refinements.  There’s also a larger gas tank and four-wheel disc brakes.  Finally the rear suspension is redesigned, apparently its better dynamics and the noise refinements are being adapted to European version.

Fiat Powertrain Technologies 1.4-liter in-line four cylinder turbo engine with Multiair

101 Horsepower

Yes, 101. That doesn’t sound like a lot but at about 2,400 pounds the 500 is hardly a heavyweight.  It’s produced by a 1.4-liter MultiAir 4-cylinder that prefers premium fuel.  In addition to the automatic gearbox there’s a five-speed manual with an odd feel to both the shifter and the clutch pedal (in my opinion anyways).  Test drive them both but my money is on the automatic which is standard in the high-end Lounge.

MultiAir is technology that allows for infinitely variable timing of the air entering the cylinders to maximize combustion depending on how hard the driver is pushing the go pedal.  The intake valve operation is driven by oil pressure actuators that are triggered by electronic control.  The benefits?  It offers up to 10 percent greater fuel efficiency and power while cutting CO2 emissions up to 10 percent.

If you want a fast Italian go with a Ferrari.  500 embraces the relaxed Italian lifestyle with a 0-60 time of just over 9 seconds, about the same as a Prius.  Floor it and the engine note cuts into the interior but it’s pleasant, not intrusive.   New 2012 Fiat 500

Overall this is a somewhat quiet car when cruising, especially when compared to Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent (some might even be cross-shopping the smart ForTwo).  Diminutive dimensions make 500 perfect for slipping through heavy city traffic, pulling tight u-turns and claiming parking spots too tight for a Honda Civic.

Small cars often loose their appeal on the highway but at 70 miles an hour 500 feels pretty solid and buttoned down, it does not get blown around willy-nilly.  It’s nimble and fun in the corners too though not as compelling as a MINI.  Fuel economy is 27 city, 34 highway with the automatic (30/38 with the five-speed manual).  Larger cars like Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus meet or beat those numbers.  Still, 500 does well in the smiles per gallon category.

New 2012 Fiat 500

Any Room Inside?

Surprisingly, yes.  Those up front will not feel cramped and should enjoy the simple but elegant design.  The vintage Italian style with Vespa scooter-like cues gets a modern twist.  The instrument panel matches the body color (customize it if you’d like. The single round gauge sports a speedometer on the outer ring with a tachometer within it.  My biggest gripe is with a steering wheel that feels good in hand but doesn’t adjust for reach.

While photographing the 500, a number of people came up to check it out.  To a person, everyone that sat in the surprisingly substantial leather chairs touched, or rather, caressed the dashboard (check out the video).  It might be hard plastic but the look remains upscale, maybe because it’s honest about its intent.

New 2012 Fiat 500

The automatic climate control is single zone, 500 is probably not big enough for dual zone anyway.   Little storage cubbies around the cabin help, only the driver gets an armrest. The 500 Lounge gets a good but not awesome Bose sound system.

Fiat uses a system to connect phones and iPods called Blue & Me that’s similar to Ford’s SYNC though not as powerful.  Insert a thumb drive into the USB slot inside the glovebox and it records data about your driving style.  Plug that drive into a home computer and a website analyzes the data right down to the CO2 emissions level for each trip and offers up advice for better fuel economy.  A hint- don’t stomp on the throttle at every stop light.

New 2012 Fiat 500

Less Roomy in the Back

You don’t expect the back seat to be very spacious do you?  Good, it’s not.  Neither is MINIs.  There are belts for two smaller humans in the rear, headroom keeps those 5’5” and up from sitting up straight.  Passengers with legs will find there’s not much room for them.  At least there are a couple cup holders and the map pockets are deep to help organize things.

I’m on a press launch so I’m far away from my bundles of TP supply but it’s easy to eyeball the cargo hold as a two to three pack space.  Cavernous is not the word best used here but come on, it’s a small hatchback and MINI, Yaris, Accent and Rio aren’t much better.  Most buyers will treat this as a two-seat vehicle with room for four in a pinch.  Fold the split rear seats and 500 can hold a big Costco run though the load floor is uneven.

New 2012 Fiat 500

The Small Revolution

The Fiat folks point out that we like compact things these days- smaller phones, tiny cameras, and iPads.  But Americans get intimidated in small cars.  For piece of mind, 500 is built with an ultra high-strength steel structure to protect passengers.  A knee airbag for the driver enhances the other expected six.  At the press conference a 500 that endured a 40 MPH frontal crash was proudly displayed, its passenger compartment and windshield generally unscathed and the front doors fully operational.

Fiat was not known for their reliability back in the 70s and 80s but young Millennials- the target for this car- will not know that.  These are modern times and Fiat is backing their quality pledge with a four year, 50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper warrantee and three years or 36,000 miles of free maintenance that includes wear and tear items.

New 2012 Fiat 500

No Two Alike

With 14 exterior colors, 14 interior colors and a slew of accessories, there are some 500,000 different ways to build this car.  In fact Fiat themselves wonder if there will be any two exactly the same.  They believe 500 will skew more male than the VW New Beetle and that Ferrari owners are prime buyers because of the Italian connection.

The fashion forward 500 has one more attractive quality, price.  A Pop model starts at just over $16,000 with destination, the high-end Lounge cracks 20K.  That’s around $1,000 more than a comparable Toyota Yaris, nearly four grand less than a MINI.  If Fiat has other compelling cars like this, I say welcome back.  The small 500 should make a big splash.

FULL GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY FIAT.

6 Comments

  1. FinalBlue says:

    I sat in one of these at the Detroit Auto Show in January, and was really impressed with the interior. Despite what some people say about the single instrument binnacle, I think it’s a brilliant idea. I think it would actually make taking in information on the road a lot easier, due to everything being in one place (although having not taken a 500 for a test drive, I can’t really be sure).

    However, I think the 500′s fuel economy should be significantly better. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by modern gas-sippers, but for such a tiny car, having average fuel economy in the mid-30′s (especially using premium fuel) is somewhat unacceptable.

    Speaking of tiny, size is another thing that people seem to be confused about regarding the 500. A lot of people compare the 500 with subcompacts (Mazda2, Fiesta, etc), but I’m fairly certain it’s a city car, which is an entire class size smaller (think Ford Ka, Chevrolet Spark, etc). Could anyone confirm what class size the 500, is and what it’s competitors are (although I suspect with America’s nearly universal contempt for truly small cars, there wouldn’t be that many here in the States).

    Oh well. At the end of the day, people aren’t going to buy the 500 for practicality or fuel economy. They’re going to buy it (and I know I would too) because it’s an inexpensive car with arresting cute looks and a charming interior.

    On another note, Tom, do you know what car Fiat is planning on bringing to America next (and could you also check the functionality of the Driven Forums? I’ve been trying to submit a request for a review, but whenever I try to access a specific thread, I just get sent back to the main forum page)?

    • TV says:

      The 500 is smaller than than the Mazda2 and company but from the little I’ve seen of them, bigger than Ka. Haven’r seen a Spark in person.

      The appeal of the 500 is style. In person they look great inside and out. I think Americans can overlook size if they feel like they are getting a good product (some can anyways). I agree, it doesn’t get the fuel economy that larger cars get.

      We’ve only been told about the 500 variants so far, nothing about a second nameplate.

      I’m working on the forum situation. Need to get an whole different system. TV

  2. Elliot says:

    The Abarth should be a hoot. And if you crash it at 40 mph the doors will still open, just not by you.

  3. kenwenzel says:

    Large motorcycle sized engine in a pint sized car with little room drinking premium gas? I just don’t get the 1400 cc engine size for a car that has to merge on the freeways. Maybe it’s the muscle car mentality I grew up with, but 1400 cc’s seems like a rolling road block in heavy traffic. Plus, personally, I think the 500 is one ugly car.

  4. crash says:

    I think this is a great looking car! And forr th emoney – why not go for it? A stylish, efficient and inexpensive car?! What’s not to like??