Since 1983, Fiat ceased to exist in the minds of North American automotive consumers…
You’ve read this sentence many times before. Though that is not entirely true, as the X1/9 and Spider 2000 were sold under their respective design house brands, Bertone and Pininfarina, well into the 1980s. In the end, Fiat no longer mattered as they faced the rise of Asian products promising a different kind of sporty automobile. By the mid-1990s, with Volkswagen left as Europe’s only mainstream brand on this continent, the consumer base yearned for another chance at some serious choices against the Japanese and Koreans. That is, until now.
Over the past year or so, I followed the progression of Fiat’s return to North America. At first, no one knew how much TARP funds and bankruptcy could play a major part in the return of the popular Italian automaker. At 30% ownership, Fiat has been integrating into Chrysler by fusing the best of both companies together. Still, the work continues as the latest revised Chrysler products are being integrated into the European lineup and other locales where Fiat (and Lancia) has a serious presence.
Yet, if there was one automobile that us North Americans had been waiting for – it’s the Fiat 500. I’ve witnessed as much as I could from speculation to touching and feeling the real thing.
Now, I have driven it. Albeit briefly.
The first impression I had about the Cinquecento was the reality of scale. When I evaluate B segment vehicles, I need to make sure that they make an impression in a market that could be welcoming or cold. You could say “cheap and cheerful,” but that’s not what Fiat had in mind for the 500. There is a serious feel to the retro design and a look that is engaging and pleasing to the eye. If you must compare it to something – the MINI Cooper is the first car that comes to mind. While BMW’s British bulldog is squat and low in its presence, the 500 provides a taller, more amenable stance that fits right in many locales. I loved how it looked when it was introduced in Europe – I like even better in my sights in the Upper Midwest.
Inside, I was pleasantly pleased with the higher seating stance compared to the rest of B Segment. The Lounge model I drove had standard leather seats that were tastefully done. The drawback was I found the backrest to be pretty flat and lacking support. If you are looking for a glove to sit in, opt for the 500 Sport and its aggressive front seats. Rear seat room is not for adults my size, but you can compensate the lack of room for extra cargo space. The floor will not be flat when the rear seats are folded, but if the load doesn’t require a completely flat floor – you can haul plenty of goodies behind the front seats. Keep in mind that if you are a tall driver, your seat position may prevent the rear seats to fold completely down – that probably would mean me.
You get plenty of equipment in the Lounge model, ranging from Sirius satellite radio, Blue-and-Me Bluetooth connectivity, the eco:Drive consumption monitoring program, a USB port for your iPod along with power windows and locks. The latter feature has an interesting action to it. If you tap the door latch away from you – the doors will lock. A very brilliant piece of ingenuity, I must say!
The single circular instrumentation pod can be confusing at first. Making up the pod, the speedometer is on the outside, the tachometer on the second layer and a digital screen in the middle. You will appreciate the middle screen as it gives you everything you need to monitor your Cinquecento – from fuel and temperature gauges to information screens showing you your radio station and song to your fuel economy data.
Under the hood is Fiat’s own MultiAir 1.4litre four-banger. Translation: It’s Fiat’s best engine and its calling card. The MultiAir goes about its business in a nice, relaxed manner to propel the 500 across the interstate system. My example was connected to a six-speed automatic gearbox that made easy work of both city and freeway conditions – something you don’t often get in the B Segment.
There are a few more surprises about the 500. You get a completely solid ride and taut handling to manage any conditions you throw the Fiat into. It steers quite well and can be pretty loose in higher speed situations. To rectify this problem, you push in the Sport button right between the audio system and the climate control switches. Once you do, you will notice the difference in gearbox and engine response along with a tighter steering feel. Sure, you lose fuel consumption, but it’s worth it on days when that opening in the left lane beckons during a typical rush hour in your town. Don’t forget about stopping – the 500 does that extremely well, too! The brakes appear to be as strong as the MINI’s, which means they’re miles better than the rest of the segment.
This brief drive in the new 500 provided some insight as to Fiat’s chances upon returning to the North American marketplace. The idea of selling a single model at a dealership is a risky venture. There had been successes – Hyundai 25 years ago with the Excel – and failures – Yugo and, to a lesser extent, smart. However, I doubt Fiat will fail. With the upcoming convertible 500C arriving at “studios” in a month or so, the Cinquecento can truly make inroads in this market. The enthusiasts will be there, for sure. The single folks and couples-with-no-kids will be there, too! I’ll even throw in the LGBT constituency along with the urbanistas to stake their claim on a 500.
The good news is that the wait is over. If one drive in a Fiat 500 is any indicator, they are very serious ensuring this return to our market is a very long one. Will that convince you to put the 500 on your shopping list? If the 30% ownership of Chrysler, the production of the MultiAir motor in Michigan along with the final assembly of the 500 in Mexico on the old PT Cruiser line doesn’t convince you – driving one will. Today's Cinquecento is a far cry from the Stradas and 128s of the past.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Luther Fiat of Brookdale, Brooklyn Park, MN
All Photos by Randy Stern