Fiat 500 First Drive: Will Americans Buy It

You might be wondering why KickingTires, the blog for car buyers, is posting about the subcompact Fiat 500, a car that's not available in the U.S. Well, it will be sold here next year, according to a Bloomberg report, and I had a chance to drive one on a recent trip to the United Kingdom. My early take on it is that it's a fun-to-drive little car in the vein of the Mini Cooper, but perhaps not the model the new Chrysler-Fiat alliance needs first in the U.S.

One characteristic of the 500 that's very similar to the Cooper is its suspension, which manages to offer decent comfort on bumpy pavement while still delivering a sporting experience when cornering. The 500's steering, though not quite as weighty and engaging as the Cooper's, is quick and in keeping with the car's lively personality.

My 500 was powered by a 1.2-liter four-cylinder gas engine producing 69 hp. It's one of a handful of engines offered in the car overseas, but my guess is that it won't be offered in the States out of concern that customers might deem its relatively low output undesirable. A more likely base engine for U.S.-bound cars is the 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine that's rated at 100 hp, a little less than a Hyundai Accent.

I drove the 500 on everything from narrow city streets to the Motorway — the U.K.'s version of Interstates — and the 1.2-liter engine offered sprightly acceleration in the city and more modest performance at highway speeds. The engine is paired with a five-speed manual transmission, and the stick's light, precise movement through the gears made for easy shifting. I did have to be diligent about making sure the transmission was in the correct gear in order to keep engine power available.

Interior materials quality and construction is pretty good for a small car. It might be a little behind what Volkswagen is doing in terms of the richness of its materials, but the trim is as nice as what you'd see in small cars from Honda and Nissan. More importantly, the interior is much nicer than what Chrysler has been able to muster in its Dodge Caliber hatchback, the smallest car it currently offers.

I wasn't a big fan of the 500's seats, though. The Lounge trim level I tested had attractive black-and-white checked seat fabric, and the driver's seat was height-adjustable, but the flat backrest wasn't the most comfortable when I drove longer than an hour or so. I could have also used a telescoping steering column; I was sitting fairly far away from the steering wheel with my arms stretched forward once I had positioned myself a comfortable distance from the pedals. Meanwhile, the two-person backseat — while somewhat short on headroom — can handle adult passengers if the front ones are willing to slide their seats forward to offer some extra legroom.

There's no question the 500 will improve Chrysler's small-car offerings in the U.S. It could also make a sales splash among car buyers who want the next new thing. That said, I think its small size will restrict it to niche status, and a niche model isn't what Chrysler needs right now.

What it does need is a small car that can take on the Honda Civic and Mazda3 and sell in high volume. The 500 isn't that car, but there are other, larger Fiat cars, like the Grande Punto and Bravo, that have potential. There's a good chance we'll see them in some form ... eventually. 

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