January 29, 2009
2009 Fiat 500 Test Drive: Will Retro Fiat Be Chrysler's Mini Cooper for 2011?
VERONA, Italy—The Fiat 500 was the rave retro hit of 2008 in Europe, and some are predicting that this car will come to the U.S as a result of the new Chrysler–Fiat alliance should it be finalized in the next few months. If the deal is inked, the 500 will likely retain the proud red Fiat badge on its hood too—this won't be re-badged as a Chrysler like the reports say, as the Grande Punto we test drove recently will be.
The Fiat 500 is, in our view, one of the most successful transmogrifications from concept (the Trepiùuno, seen at the Geneva Show in 2004) to production car. Designer Roberto Giolito's current 500 is, of course, a direct crib from Dante Giacosa's original rear-engined 500 or "Cinquecento Nuova," first presented to the Italian premier on July 4, 1957. Britain had its Mini, Germany its Beetle, France its "Duex Chevaux"—but the Fiat 500 was Italy's "People's Car." We hope the 500, along with the sportier 500 Abarth version, does come stateside, bceause we sure enjoyed our time behind the wheel of a 500 recently. —Andrew English
Built in Tychy, Poland, alongside the Fiat Panda, the 500 has a MacPherson-strut front and twist-beam rear suspension. It's bigger than the 1957 original, mainly as a result of modern safety regulations. If a manufacturer wants to fit four people (barely) into a tiny, 140-in. long body shell and still achieve five Euro NCAP crash-test stars, it means that a good chunk of that body must be made of strong steel. In the 500's case, over 65 percent of the body is high-strength nickel and chrome-vanadium-alloy steel.
Three engines are offered. The smallest, a tiny 68-hp 1.2-liter gasoline four-cylinder produces 75 lb-ft of torque and is paired to a five-speed manual. The thrifty 1.3-liter turbodiesel generates 74 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque. But the top performance engine is the 1.4-liter gasoline Four that makes 99 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque. And that powerplant comes paired to a six-speed manual.
The 500 looks smart without much dress-up. But as with the Mini Cooper, the options make the car exponentially more interesting. The 500 can come with just about any trimmings, including chrome trim, Italian badges on the fenders, checkered roof panels, special wheels—you name it. Of course these options do increase the price considerably from the base model's 7930-pound ($11,348) price tag. Buyers typically spend about $1400 on extras for their 500s.
Inside the cabin, the options are wild. There's a hounds-tooth seat covering that looks specially flown in from the '60s and even a pearlescent white paint on the dashboard that was previously the preserve of Maserati—one of Fiat Group's brands. There are 549,000 possible configurations for the 500; 11 different colors, 100 accessories, and seven different interior- trim choices. All this is the brainchild of Fiat marketing whiz Luca de Meo. "When I got the job, my mother said why don't you do the 500, that's what everyone wants you to do," he said at the launch. De Meo recently left Fiat, bound (it is rumored) for Volkswagen. Fiat's going to miss him.
Everything you see and touch inside the cabin is beautifully designed. The hand-stitched, leather-covered steering wheel and gear lever, the chrome door handles and concentrically arranged speedometer and tach—it's all a pleasure to look at and use. However, the cheaper shared parts and harsh plastics in the back of the cabin and the trunk don't bear such close inspection.
The front seats are comfortable, but not particularly supportive, so you do flop around when cornering hard. But somehow, that's all part of the experience and authenticity of the 500. The pedal box is wide enough for big shoes, the clutch is light, and the brakes are easy to modulate without standing the car on its nose. The back seats have been designed for the 70th percentile adult, which means you'll need to love the one next to you very much if you want to endure more than hour. The trunk is quite reasonable and with the easily folded rear seat down you can amass a mountain of luggage.
On the road, the 500 equipped with the 1.2-liter four-cylinder isn't the sluglike disaster you might have predicted, although you do have to wring its neck up the hills. The engine is remarkably light. That means the whole car feels sprightly in the twisty bits, rides well and turns into corners beautifully. But the 500 with this engine hits 60 mph in a rather lethargic 12.9 seconds—hardly performance-car territory. The upshot is a stellar combined 46.1-mpg (U.S.) rating.
Switch to the diesel, and you'll notice the extra weight of that engine (it's 253 pounds heavier than the 1.2-liter). The diesel is slower initially as you turn into corners and has a harsher ride too. It doesn't go much faster up the straights than the 1.2-liter either, trundling to 60 mph in about 12.5 seconds. But the fuel consumption is a quite outstanding 56 mpg (U.S.).
The best choice of all is the 1.4-liter engine—and that's probably the one that will power American versions of this car. It will reach 60 mph in 10.5 seconds, motor on to a top speed of 113 mph and still delivers a respectable 37.3 mpg (U.S.) in the Combined European cycle. This one has enough engine torque to ensure you aren't constantly rowing it through the gears, and the handling is the best of the bunch. As a driver's car, this 500 is loads of fun.
The Bottom Line
So is the 500 just a cynical raid on the company's dusty drawing board to pillage a retro wrap for a garden-family hatchback, the Panda? Well, of course it is, but let's not forget the special place the original 500 has in the hearts of Italy. Giacosa's original design was and still is quite brilliant. And for many years this little car defined the nation as much as Italy's fashion or food. So the new 500 reminds everyone of the amazing original. As Luca De Meo put it, "The 500 is a designer car for the common man." It's irresistible, and Europe is smitten by the 500. You probably will be too.
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2009 Fiat 500 Test Drive: Will Retro Fiat Be Chrysler's Mini Cooper for 2011? - Popular Mechanics