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Kissin' cousins: Fiat 500, Dodge Charger demonstrate Chrysler's diversity

August, 19 2011




If you think back to the oil-leaking, perpetually impossible-to-start Fiat Spider in your neighbor's driveway in the 1970s — sexy looking, yes, but mechanically dubious, to say the least — you might not have pegged those quixotic Italians as the future savior of a portion of the American auto dynasty.

In this current economy, money talks, and Fiat was able to help bail out Chrysler, lest it disappear entirely. As a result, the blended company is able to create improved but charmingly middle-of-the-road domestic fare such as the Dodge Charger, though the ongoing horsepower arms race provides some amusing excess.

And, while they're not at all common yet in Colorado, the union has also finally rendered the physical evidence of Fiat's much-improved but still astoundingly foreign best-seller, the 500 subcompact.

The tiny, egg-shaped Fiat, about the same size as a Mini Cooper, debuted in 2007 in Europe and has sold more than a half-million units since then. In that European context — painfully expensive gasoline, overcrowded ancient cities and a lack of interstate driving — the 500 makes perfect sense, especially as it's actually twice as large as the 1950s model it replaced.

Here in America, the Mexican-made 2012 version of the 500 will appeal to those who see a Smart Car as a nice idea but are looking for something which might actually be driven on the highway. Those with a forward-looking eye for design, plus a desire for the frugality of up to 38 mpg highway. Like, the people of Portland, Oregon, where I saw a dozen 500s on the road last week.

The 500 is certainly a mixed bag, but much more (and a little less) than one might expect for a vehicle retailing for just over $15,000. The 500's tiny 1.4-liter four-cylinder spits out only 101 horsepower and is slow as molasses from a start, even with a five-speed manual, but it will eventually hit highway speed.

Just to check, I drove the car up I-70 from Golden to Genesee and was impressed that it was able to maintain 70 mph without resorting to low gears or strongly worded statements of encouragement. I've also seen them in the Eisenhower Tunnel, though mid-winter jaunts on those tiny 15-inch wheels might be iffy.

What the Fiat lacks in pure speed it makes up for in … well, the initial impressions you get running it around town are that you're in an adult-sized version of a Tiny Tykes push-car, with about the same wobbly handling characteristics.

I remedied this assertion by going out and doing some faux rally driving on a gravel mountain road, revving the living hell out of the engine and seeing what the 500 could really do (mostly confident that if I went into a ditch, I'd just pick the car up with my hands and put it back on the road).

Turns out 500 is actually pretty fun to drive when it's pushed hard, though the 90-inch wheelbase and 2,363-pound curb weight mean one has to be especially attentive as to not actually end up in the ditch.

The overall dimensions also require the same gusto and bravado as a Mini driver when interfacing with drivers of normal-sized vehicles (as the 500 seems to fit nicely inside the wheel well of a Chevy Tahoe). As a trade-off, you can park it anywhere. Your friends can probably pick it up and put it on your lawn.

Design is certainly Ital-o-rific and fresh despite being about four years old, a primary color festival inside and out. Mine sported a bright red plastic dash plate, red, soft-touch fabric armrests and Ferrari-colored, two-tone fabric seats (quite comfortable, by the way), but not much else in the cabin, save for a giant eight-ball-shaped shift knob, a single cupholder and the e-brake.

The giant, one-piece instrument gauge, with concentric circles for speed and tachometer, is cute but non-intuitive, and an orange LED panel in the middle with trip computer data was virtually impossible to see in bright sunlight.

The 500 also sports an attractive but totally plastic and very foreign-looking radio head unit, integrating satellite radio into an impressively punchy Bose speaker setup, plus some Americanized A/C controls.

Crack the door and you'll find 500 is quite comfortable, with the perception of roominess for you and a front-seat passenger. A one-touch slider allows easy access to the small but not impossible rear seat; there's a whopping 9.5 cubic feet of luggage storage unless you drop those rear seats.

Fun for oddballs, indeed, and not entirely a plaything, the Fiat 500 is a strange savior indeed.

The more vulgar cousin
But as a result of the Italians' financial generosity, we get to see some new life injected into Chrysler's more traditional models, including the recently re-launched 2011 Dodge Charger.

As you may have heard, the super-high-powered SRT line of Chrysler vehicles has recently morphed into its own testosterone-laden sub-brand (the logic being, I guess, that while gas is still relatively cheap in the U.S., everyone should have the opportunity to drive a 465-horsepower vehicle).

My R/T model, also outfitted with AWD, is the civilian version of the Pursuit vehicle being gobbled up by police forces across the country, and I can see why.

It's relatively large, essentially a four-door version of the style-forward Challenger, and with its own 5.7-liter Hemi engine now making 370 horsepower and 400 lb.-ft. of torque (but getting as much as 23 mpg), about the only thing that will outrun it is one of those SRT-8 monsters.

Charger is incredibly forgiving, even at high speeds, with a smooth ride, a solid stance and capable braking — the police model gets better brakes and tougher suspension, but even civilians will enjoy the regular car's response. Gunning it at any speed produces some beautifully noisy exhaust; tire-smoking is entirely up to you.

And with doors that open at almost 45-degree angles, front and rear, you could practically load a London telephone booth into the car. Indicating that even the largest American will find it a comfortable fit, though I had to stretch very, very hard to actually reach the doors to close them when wide open.

Optional Nappa leather seating and inside door panels make for a comfortable experience, including the commodious back seat.

The 2011 makeover takes that already menacing and aggressive grille (part of the whole police psy-ops thing, I understand, though I notice the new Toyota 4Runner is also rocking the same look) and adds weight to it, plus a squared-off rear end inspired by the Challenger, with a body-length single brakelamp and chromed faux exhaust ports.

They've also added old-school, scooped indentations into the hood and a curved, concave, Coke bottle-styled body line.

Inside, the dash got a vibrant makeover and a rubbery, almost hide-like texture, with all of the instruments and the optional Uconnect touchscreen presented clearly and shrouded in a silvery, carbon-fiber-styled wrap—hell, maybe it's real carbon fiber, and it's also on the center console.

New instruments are highly stylized and a little hard to read, so I opted to use the digital central display to dial up the speedometer and trip computer (you can even select it to see the power split when the AWD system kicks in on snowy roads).

I can honestly say that the Uconnect system is superior to Ford's MyFord Touch system, though it doesn't offer quite the same level of detail—mostly because Uconnect's icons are larger and easier to poke while actually driving.

It's gigantic and way less geeky to operate, with the ubiquitous Garmin system morphed into its workflow. You don't get live traffic, but if you explore a little bit, the Garmin has tremendously detailed functionality, and the whole unit finally makes satellite radio and iPod connections very easy to use.

Charger's only minor foibles are a very loud and sometimes overly sensitive blind spot monitoring system (which chimes and mutes the stereo, as well) and a low-resolution rearview camera. On the upside, you get pushbutton start and an optional remote starter. And if you order it in silver body color, everyone will maintain the speed limit as you cruise the highway.


 
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