Friday, August 19, 2011

2012 Fiat 500

What's New for 2012

The all-new 2012 Fiat 500 ushers in the return of the Fiat brand to North America.


There was once a car so small it made the Mini seem like a Big. A car that if you saw one on the streets, you'd swear it was a child's scale replica. That car was the Fiat 500, or Cinquecento en Italiano, and it left such an indelible impression during its 18-year lifespan that Fiat performed a Mini-like resurrection to it three years ago. Now, with Fiat purchasing Chrysler last year, the 500 has been chosen to be the pioneer model to reintroduce the Fiat brand to North America.
The 2012 Fiat 500 certainly has the potential to be the next big (or rather, small) thing. While the original 500 was the size of a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, the nuova 500 looks far more like a regular car -- albeit a tiny one. Compared to a Mini Cooper, it's 6 inches shorter in overall length and 2 inches narrower. However, it is also more than 4 inches taller, allowing for an elevated seating position that not only increases visibility but creates more interior legroom.
Should you want some sun, the 500C convertible (a.k.a. Cabrio) may be to your liking. It maintains the 500's side roof structure, but the center portion is replaced by a power-sliding cloth piece that stacks atop the flip-up trunk. Imagine a cross between a Porsche 911 Targa and an automatic pool cover. The upside is reduced wind and the ability to lower the roof at speeds up to 60 mph -- the downside is horrible rear visibility with the roof lowered.
Initially, there will be one engine offered: a 1.4-liter 101-horsepower four-cylinder attached to either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. No, that doesn't sound like a lot of power (and it isn't), but at only 2,350 pounds, the Fiat weighs 218 pounds less than the 121-hp base Cooper, which manages to be reasonably sprightly. It's an energetic engine that sounds happy to work hard, but we'll still keep our hopes up for Europe's hot Abarth 500 model as well as the impressive TwinAir turbocharged two-cylinder that promises fuel economy in the range of 57 mpg.
Like the Mini Cooper, the 2012 Fiat 500 promises lots of character and personalization in a price category not usually known for it. It's also competitively equipped, but you could easily leave the dealership with a reasonably optioned 500 for nearly two grand less than the Mini's base price. The 500 barely tops $23,000 when loaded to the gills. Of course, cars like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Mazda 2 offer more room for even less.
However, as sunny as the skies may seem over the new 2012 Fiat 500, there is an enormous cloud hanging over it. Italian cars are not known for their reliability, and neither are Chryslers. An Italian car built by Chrysler in the same Mexico plant that built the K-Car, the Neon and the PT Cruiser? Doesn't sound like a recipe for a long-lasting, trouble-free product. But the 500 has been sold in Europe for long enough to work out a few kinks, so who knows? We'll keep our hopes up and our ears open to early customer reviews, but buyer beware.
The 500's limited Chrysler-based dealer network is still to be determined, but when the car begins to trickle out onto America's congested streets, this adorable little hatchback could enjoy a reaction similar to that inspired by the Mini half a decade ago. Of course, the 500 has a growing list of impressive other cheap and cheerful small cars against which to compete. But even if the 2012 500 isn't the most spacious or reliable, it certainly has the attributes of "cute" and "adorable" down pat.

Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options

The 2012 Fiat 500 is a two-door subcompact hatchback available as a hardtop or 500C convertible. Both body styles are available in Pop and Lounge trim levels, while the hatchback adds a Sport midgrade trim.
Standard equipment on the 500 Pop includes 15-inch steel wheels and chrome-trimmed wheel covers, keyless entry, full power accessories, heated mirrors, air-conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-only steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Convenience package (standard on the 500C) adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Fiat's Blue&Me Bluetooth phone connectivity and an iPod/USB audio interface. The Bose Premium Audio package adds satellite radio along with an upgraded six-speaker system and subwoofer.
The Fiat 500 Sport gains 16-inch alloy wheels, firmer suspension tuning, retuned steering, slightly different styling, a roof spoiler, foglamps, sport seats, cloth/vinyl sport upholstery and the Pop's two optional packages. Satellite radio is a separate option, however. The Safety & Convenience package (automatic transmission required) includes automatic climate control, a compact spare tire and heated front seats.
The 500 Lounge reverts to the Pop's mechanical tuning and includes its optional packages as well. Also included are 15-inch alloy wheels, exterior chrome accents, foglamps, a fixed glass roof (hatchback only) and upgraded cloth upholstery. The Convenience Group adds rear parking sensors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and heated front seats. The Luxury package adds leather upholstery and upgraded trim. A sunroof and an integrated TomTom navigation system are optional on both the Sport and the Lounge. Dealer-installed accessories like interior ambient lighting and exterior graphics are also available.

Powertrains and Performance

The 2012 Fiat 500 is powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 101 hp and 98 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the Pop and the Sport. A six-speed automatic is standard on the Lounge and optional on the other trims. In Edmunds performance testing, the Fiat 500 went from zero to 60 mph in 10.8 seconds with the manual transmission -- a good 2 seconds slower than a Mini, but closer to other underpowered subcompacts. The automatic is likely to be slower.
EPA-estimated fuel economy stands at an excellent 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined with the manual transmission. This drops to 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the automatic, which is still thrifty, but worse than almost every competitor.


The 2012 Fiat 500 comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock disc brakes, a driver knee airbag, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In Edmunds brake testing, a 500 Sport came to a stop from 60 mph in a short 119 feet.

Interior Design and Special Features

While the Fiat 500's retro styling screams "Mini fighter," its interior raises the decibels even further. It doesn't possess as many customization options and accessories as its British archrival, but the 500 does offer snazzy two-tone color schemes and plenty of neat little design cues. It also has a more straightforward control layout than the form-over-function Mini. However, the available "Blue & Me" voice-activated iPod control is practically unusable, leaving you to use the standard auxiliary jack.
As for interior quality, the Fiat is not quite up to the Mini's level. There are more hard surfaces, but compared to other cars in its modest price range, they are pleasingly textured and generally higher in quality.
Other than the Smart Fortwo, the Fiat 500 is the smallest car sold in the United States. Nonetheless, the high-mounted front seats allow for an impressive amount of legroom even for tall drivers. Sadly, however, those same tall drivers will find their heads grazing the headliner should they get a car with the available sunroof. Headroom is always tight in the backseat, as is legroom.
Behind the backseat you'll find only 6.5 cubic feet of luggage space, but here again, it's more than what's offered by the Mini. Lower the backseat in the hatchback and you'll discover a less boxy, less useful space, but it's still good enough to carry the odd bulky item.

Driving Impressions

It may be one of the slowest cars on sale, but the 2012 Fiat 500 is willing and eager to pull its weight (especially with the easy-to-drive manual transmission), and exhibits more pleasing noises than other underpowered subcompacts. The steering is rather devoid of feel and numb on center, but press the Sport button on the dash and the 500's steering firms up pleasingly. This is especially true for the 500 Sport, which we think is the model to get given its more responsive handling and ride quality that still betters a Mini Cooper's.