Our view: 2012 FIAT 500

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

Absent from America since 1983, Italian carmaker Fiat returns stateside with the 500 hatchback. Fiat owns a controlling stake in Chrysler, and that company will sell the car — initially — at 130 dealerships.

While the small 500 is not the mass-market subcompact that Chrysler badly needs, it is excellent in some ways.

Available in Pop, Sport and Lounge trims, the small 500 is nimble and fashionable. That’s a formula that BMW’s Mini has proved to be viable — interior roominess be damned. The four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Fiat comes with manual and automatic transmissions; I test-drove a manual Sport and an automatic Lounge.

Distinctive Styling

Styled after the original rear-engine 1957 Cinquecento — “500” in Italian — the front-engine 500 has the same beady headlights and parking lamps; it’s a familiar sight overseas, where it’s been on sale since 2007. Though not as affable as the Mini, the 500’s bubble-car profile and pencil-moustache expression promise distinction over here. That’s a considerable feat, considering the car’s small size will make it hard to see — period. Measuring just under 140 inches long, the Fiat is 7 inches shorter than a Cooper, although it’s more than a foot longer than Scion’s forthcoming iQ and nearly 3 feet longer than a Smart ForTwo. The 500’s small footprint, well-assisted power steering and 30.6-foot turning circle (smaller than the Mini’s and just 1.8 feet wider than the ForTwo’s) should help cement its urban credentials.

The Pop and Lounge have 15-inch wheels, which are alloy on the Lounge. Sport models have a unique, three-portal front bumper and 16-inch alloy wheels. Sport and Lounge trims have fog lights.

How It Moves

The 500 has adequate power from a standstill. Highway passing at 70 mph is workable, even with the five-speed manual in 5th gear. The optional six-speed automatic, meanwhile, serves up smooth upshifts and kicks down to lower gears quickly enough. There’s a Sport mode that downshifts sooner.

Fiat’s 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder makes a modest 101 horsepower, but that’s enough to move the sub-2,500-pound hatchback easily enough. It’s not a pleasing motor to listen to; noises run the gamut from a coarse, agricultural thrum at low rpm to a pitchy howl when you push the car hard. If you want more zip, Fiat plans to offer a beefier drivetrain in the Abarth 500, set to debut in early 2012.

Interstate trips are manageable, but you won’t want to make a regular habit of them. Either suspension — there’s a base setup in Pop and Lounge trims and a sport-tuned suspension in the 500 Sport — settles into a firm up-and-down rhythm on the highway. The car’s short, 90.6-inch wheelbase doesn’t handle expansion joints and other ruts gracefully, and the semi-independent rear suspension doesn’t help. Ever-present road and wind noise add to the ruckus, and the optional moonroof’s mesh sunscreen doesn’t block out any sound. It’s worth mentioning that the Cooper and Cooper S ride firmly — objectionably so, with their optional Sport packages — so the 500 is no outlier here.

Find a sweeping corner, and the Fiat’s nose admirably refuses to push wide. It’s as drift-happy as the Cooper, with steering that’s nearly as quick-witted and brakes that feel just as strong. I only wish the car would corner flatter. Fiat marketing manager Stephane Cloutier said you sit a couple of inches higher in the 500 than in a Cooper, and it shows: Pitch the car hard into a corner, and even the Sport model leans noticeably.

Fiat expects overall gas mileage of around 33 mpg with the stick, and 30 mpg with the automatic. Given the automatic will probably be the volume seller, the mileage disappoints. The automatic Fit, Cooper and Fiesta are rated up to 3 mpg higher in EPA combined mileage — and the 500, like the Cooper, recommends premium gasoline. (Fill your Fiat with the cheap stuff, and the automaker says to expect a 1- to 2-percent performance loss.)

The Inside

Cabin materials don’t set any new standards for a sub-$20,000 car, but the 500’s appealing trim pieces lend a fresh, avant-garde flavor that draws attention away from some cheaper plastics. Major controls come in black or an appealing eggshell trim, and a glossy dash panel matches the car’s exterior paint.

The front seats don’t have a lot of lateral support, and I couldn’t warm up to their formless backrests over a daylong stretch in the car. I found ample adjustment range for my 6-foot frame, and decent thigh support, but that was more a consequence of the seat cushions angling sharply upward than them being necessarily long enough. Those who share the car, take note: The manual seat adjustments in our test cars were a bit cantankerous to operate.

With the windshield and side windows relatively nearby, visibility is generally good. The B-pillars are my only gripe: They’re far enough back to make the seat belt a long reach — and squeeze, given the seats are nearly wedged against the pillars — but far enough forward to present a visual obstacle for over-the-left-shoulder checks during lane changes.

The backseat and trunk area — the latter being a smallish 9.5 cubic feet — aren’t good for much more than groceries and occasional hapless passengers. Conventional inexpensive hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa blow the 500 away in this regard, but folding the Fiat’s seats down renders 30.1 cubic feet, which isn’t that bad.

Safety, Features & Pricing

As of this writing, neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has crash-tested the 500. Standard safety features include seven airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list of safety features.

The $15,500 Pop comes well-equipped: Power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack are all standard. At the other end, a loaded Lounge edition can have heated leather seats, a fixed glass roof or a retracting moonroof, basic — not audio-streaming — Bluetooth, a USB/iPod-compatible Bose stereo and automatic climate control. (Click here to compare all three trims.) Although an in-dash navigation system is not offered, Fiat sells a portable TomTom unit.

Check all the factory options, and the 500 runs about $24,000. The destination charge is a relatively affordable $500. With more than a dozen (each!) exterior and interior colors available, plus an array of graphic and accessory add-ons, Fiat says there are more than half a million ways to configure the 500.

Anyone old enough to remember Fiat’s U.S. history may have reservations about the brand’s return. When Fiat left, its reputation was less for Italian flair than for poor quality and dealer service. Appropriately, the brand will offer three-year or 36,000-mile complimentary wear-and-tear maintenance and a four-year or 50,000-mile basic and powertrain warranty. The latter provision is about average for the industry, but three years’ complimentary coverage for normal wear on stuff like brake pads and wiper blades should assuage some concerns regarding the cost of maintaining an Italian car.

500 in the Market

Those who need to stuff child seats or Costco pallets into their hatchbacks should pass up the 500 for a roomier set of cheap wheels. From Ford to Hyundai, the market has plenty of them. Fiat’s offering seems destined for niche appeal — the automaker’s expectation of 50,000 U.S. and Canadian sales in 2011 sounds overly optimistic — but the car’s styling and nimble handling could win a group of younger enthusiasts.

For a company looking to bring more models stateside, including some from its Alfa-Romeo subsidiary, that fervor may prove even more important than total sales. Chrysler is still in need of something that will be able to go toe-to-toe with the Fit and its ilk, but it stands to benefit from the 500 nonetheless.

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