By Allen Penticoff
For regular readers of this column, I’ve established a pattern that I’ll try to stick to. Alternating a technical investigation with a vehicle review. There is a lot of technology to report about, and a lot of new efficient vehicles to check out. This week, I’ll take a look at a little car that caught my eye — the Fiat 500.
It is no secret I am personally fond of small cars. In 1974, I traded a nearly-new Ford van in on a new Fiat 128 SL I purchased from Zimmerman’s in Freeport. Uncle Sam shipped it to South Korea for me, where I was stationed in the U.S. Army, and I drove it there two years — selling it there when reassigned back to the U.S. I loved that red Fiat. I’m still driving a 1992 Honda Civic VX I bought new 20 years ago this month. I like it so much I bought a second one last January. The Fiat 500 is appealing, just for its undeniable cuteness (well, in my eyes anyway). If cuteness sells small cars (and it does), then I’m all for anything that encourages people to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles.
A little history first, as many readers may be unfamiliar with the company that is Fiat, since Fiat dealerships in the U.S. faded out in the 1970s. The name is an acronym for Fabrication Italiana Automobilia Torino. I suppose it should be F.I.A.T., but it has been a single word nearly since its founding in 1889. The Italians were racing Fiats and other cars before Ford was founded in 1901. They still drive pretty fast.
The Fiat 500 is a legendary small car, well-suited for Europe’s small roads and tight cities. Production began in 1957 and ran through 1975. They had tiny motorcycle-sized, air-cooled, two-cylinder engines of 479 c.c. (13 hp ) to 595 c.c. (23 hp) located in the rear (a la VW Beetle). They only weighed 1,100 pounds — the new version weighs twice as much and has much bigger engines — therefore, much less efficient.
In 2007, 50 years after the launch of the first Fiat 500, the company debuted the new Fiat 500. The retro look speaks to its namesake heritage, but the mechanics are thoroughly modernized, and it is competing in class with the similarly retro BMW Mini Cooper and Volkswagen New Beetle. The basic chassis is based on the Ford Ka.
Fiat SpA now owns controlling interest in Chrysler Corporation. Their CEO, Sergio Marchionne, was recently in Belvidere, Ill., for the unveiling of the new Dodge Dart. So, the connection with Chrysler and Fiat is close now. The European Fiat 500 is built in Tychy, Poland, by the Fiat Group, while the car for the Americas is built in Toluca, Mexico, by Chrysler Group, LLC.
The nearest Fiat “studio” at this time is in Schaumburg, Ill., at Ziegler Chrysler/Fiat, where I took a snazzy, bright yellow one for a test drive. My wife, Ruth, rode shotgun, while the sales representative, Dustin Morton, bravely rode in the back seat. Morton had never ridden in the back of the Fiat, and was surprised at its roominess. The interior is quite modern and stylish — so Italian.
A short drive around Schaumburg found the acceleration was adequate, though not quite exhilarating (the 160 hp Abarth version will cure that). The clutch adjustment was a bit off, and I killed it three times. The five-speed manual shifting was smooth with the “ball” knob having a pleasant shape, but a not-so-pleasant feel of chrome on plastic. A leather or polished aluminum knob would be nice. The 500 is also available with a six-speed automatic with select shift. The three-door coupe demonstrated a very tight turning radius and excellent low-speed handling when tossing it around an empty parking lot. In all, it was a very likeable car.
Back at the dealership, we perused the plethora of different-colored 500s. Some have an opening soft-top roof (500C); some have designer identification (Gucci) or Breast Cancer Awareness trim. These days, when most cars seem to be painted silver, black or white, it is a thrill to see so many other choices on the lot. In particular, Ruth fell for the dark metallic brown with the vintage look brown-and-white leather interior (though I’m more inclined toward the sporty yellow). Prices are in the mid-teens to upper $20,000 range, depending on options. Do some research — the variations and options can create some very unique cars.
I suspect the Fiat 500, despite its EPA rating of 30/38 mpg (manual), 27/34 (auto) will do better on the street — 40 hwy mpg should be attainable. Economical fun. I expect a lot of 500s will end up in the hands of young women. We’ll keep our eye open for these fun cars — they are a delight to see on our streets.
From the Feb. 8-14, 2012, issue