To know the Fiat 500 is to know its numbers.
Fifty-four years ago, Italy’s Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino produced a car the size of a large coffee table. It was three meters long, powered by a 479-cc engine and about as quick off the line as a riding lawnmower. It produced 13 horsepower, or roughly as much as a modern portable electric generator. America laughed — you could cram a 500 into the trunk of a ’57 Cadillac, and crashing one was certain death — but the rest of the world just went ahead and bought the silly thing. Three-and-a-half million times.
Thirty-six years ago, that car was discontinued. Almost three decades ago, Fiat left America because it couldn’t suss what Americans wanted in a car. Six years ago, the firm revived the 500’s name and profile for a new model, a 3.5-meter-long subcompact. And four months ago, Fiat unveiled the U.S. version of that car, the first Fiat to be sold in America in 28 years.
There has since been a lot of pushback. Small cars don’t work in America, people say, but Fiat reps point to the Mini Cooper, an example of which lives on every street from Pasadena to Pittsburgh. Fiat stands for Fix It Again Tony, pundits cackle, but Fiat employees roll their eyes and wearily point to the fact that their current lineup doesn’t fall apart or regularly catch fire. (Buy a ’70s Spider, though, and even devotees will admit all bets are off.) The paranoids scream about small cars being unsafe, which prompts Fiat to trumpet the 500’s five-star European NCAP safety rating.
In short, America isn’t the place it once was, and Fiat isn’t the company it once was.
Similarly, the 500 isn’t the car it once was. When the 2400-pound hatchback arrives at the dealers’ next month, it will come in three forms: Pop ($16,000), Sport ($18,000) and Lounge ($20,000). Each gets a 101-hp version of Fiat’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder (30/38 mpg city/highway) and a standard five-speed manual transmission. The three levels are separated by small differences like bumper trim, wheel size and suspension tuning, but they’re essentially the same car. Creature comforts like air conditioning and cruise control are standard, and a six-speed Aisin automatic is available across the line.
Looks aside, our 500 isn’t Europe’s 500. Everything from interior layout to crash structure has been tweaked in the interest of appealing to stateside needs. Because we’re a nation of fatties, the front seats have been widened, the center console narrowed. The back of the rear seat is now carpeted, not painted metal, because we supposedly like that sort of thing. Steering and suspension tuning have been modified. And there’s a glove box and driver’s armrest where Europe had none, because Europeans apparently don’t wear gloves, or perhaps have no arms at all. (The mind boggles. Maybe it’s a trend.)
The biggest change, however, is the engine. The 1.4-liter, 98 lb-ft four that lives under the 500’s hood is not offered in Europe, where the car makes do with a variety of smaller, hamster-on-a-wheel mills. This engine is a technological marvel; it’s tiny (note the iPhone placed on the intake manifold for scale), efficient and boasts Fiat’s MultiAir variable valve-timing technology, which does away with an intake camshaft and uses oil pressure to vary valve lift and timing. The MultiAir name comes from the system’s clever ability to open the valves multiple times in one intake stroke, promoting charge turbulence and aiding combustion.
The end result is a car that feels almost, but not completely, European. Like Europe’s 500, ours is impossibly nimble and slow as molasses: 60 mph arrives in an estimated 9.5 seconds.
It’s best to start with the negatives, since they’re readily apparent: There isn’t any steering feedback to speak of, though the dash-mounted “Sport” button shifts the 500’s electro-hydraulic boost from woolly and vague to sharp and direct. Relatively soft springs and dampers, even on the Sport model, mean that the 500’s nose heads for China under hard braking. The combined tachometer-speedometer instrument cluster is a busy mess, like reading War and Peace painted on the rim of a tea saucer. And the back seat, which requires contortions to enter, is cramped unless you’re under 5 feet 10 inches and have no legs.
Still, the 500 is charming. It wants you to like it. You never forget you’re driving a goofy, 2-meter-tall golf cart, a Smart ForTwo built by people who actually like cars. You also never forget that it’s Italian, which means that speed and practicality take a back seat to flair and emotion. You end up laughing in spite of yourself and doing things like stopping for espresso (or a sandwich, or a nap, or an interesting art buy) even when you’re late.
If nothing else, the 500 makes the Mini — a British icon re-imagined by Germans — feel like the most contrived piece of culture on the planet.
In other words, this is a style piece. It’s a leisure tool that works best when you chill out. It’s quiet on the highway. The engine revs cleanly and easily to its 6900-rpm redline, but you aren’t encouraged to whip it. Its sound — a flat, steady drone regardless of rpm — seems almost purposely inoffensive. And while winding roads and city streets aren’t a flat-out thrill, the 500’s diminutive size and easy clutch takeup make up for a lot.
Above all, the Fiat makes you think about what we look for in cars and why, and maybe that’s the point. Charming or not, it’s likely too small and compromised to pull a Mini and take over America. You get the impression that this doesn’t matter much to the Italians, or to the thousands of Americans who pre-ordered 500s. The Fiat exists on its own terms, however flawed they are, and it’s blessedly, gloriously unique. These days, that counts for a lot.
- At Long Last, the Fiat 500 Arrives
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- Electric Fiat 500: Bellissimo!
- The Little 57-MPG Engine That Could
Photos by Sam Smith/get-gadget