g190000000000000000b4e65a8f89f2c9ad6a5fc92224865ae0ff2bcb4e.jpg

The 2012 Fiat 500 convertible offers better than average fuel economy in its sub-compact class.

Photo by Len Ingrassia
Herald Staff Writer

Much of a car purchase boils down to a connection between machine and consumer wants. The re-introduction of the Italian Fiat tugs hard on the emotional string of likes. It is small, cute and hops around town with surprising zip.

The sub-compact market has seen explosive growth with the launch of cars like the Scion IQ, Smart Fortwo, Nissan Juke and Cube, all in the $15,000 - $20,000 range.

Radical designs mark the new breed of little cars in a way that sets them apart from larger vehicles. The Fiat is no exception with stylish rounded fenders, a VW bug-like front end and a tiny hatchback lid.

Interior look and feel is basic but functional. A large gauge cluster takes the place of the typical three-round gauge dashboard layout found in most conventional cars.

At the center of the cluster is a circular digital screen displaying date, time, speed, outside temp, engine temp and fuel level. Outside that circle is, you guessed it, another circular display for the tachometer and, surrounding that is yet another circular display for the speedometer.

Sound confusing? After a week of test driving the Cabriolet version of the 500 it seemed like creative use of the small space available.

The convertible rag top is also unique. Picture an accordion-style fabric door. Flip a switch located near the roof and the top folds horizontally to the rear hatchback while not losing any roof support.

Lots of legroom and headroom is awaiting front seat passengers. While there is a small rear seat, its best use is folded downward making way for a generous 30 cubic feet of cargo space, more than its competition.

While an automatic transmission is available for the US market, I found the standard five-speed extremely easy to use. It provides more driver control throughout the gears than the automatic and it delivers higher gas mileage.

While the standard 500 is not a performance machine, it does reach 60 miles per hour in 10.5 seconds, comparable with small hybrid sedans.

The Fiat 500 is available in three well-equipped models; Pop, Sport and Lounge; two convertible versions and a turbo charged Abarth edition with 160 horsepower compared with 101-ponies powering the base car.

The first production Fiat 500, a Cinquecento (pronounced chin-qwa-cento) in Italy, came on the scene in 1957 through 1975. It was powered by a two-cycle, air-cooled, rear-engine similar to the VW Bug.

On its 50th anniversary in 2007, the company previewed the new car in Europe with front wheel drive, a heavier frame and longer wheelbase. The new Fiat 500 weighs 2,400 pounds and is 10.5 feet long compared with its British Mini rival weighing in at 2,670 pounds and 12.2 feet in length.

Fiat purchased Chrysler last year and chose the 500 model to re-launch North American sales through 130 outlets, including many stand alone former Hummer dealership locations.

Consumer demand for the new Fiat has been brisk with sales through June nearly matching those of the Mini at 22,000. That’s sure to bring a smile to Fiat.

---

Len Ingrassia is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at editor@ptd.net.

This Week's Circulars