Good things come in small packages. Odds are this phrase has you already conjuring up images of diamond jewelry, electronic gadgets, or Linda Hunt in a box. You’re probably not thinking about small B-segment cars like the Toyota Yaris or the terrible Smart ForTwo. It’s that phrase, however, that the new Fiat 500 came to American shores on.
See, with gas prices rising, new government fuel efficiency regulations, and typical family sedans getting fatter, softer and less sporty, Chrysler decided that bringing this European city car would be nothing short of a good idea. After all, the 500 is a superstar in many countries across the pond and it could do to B-segment cars what Taylor Swift did to boring, stupid county music. Can you say sexy, fun alternative?
Ok, maybe sexy is a bit exaggerated, but the Fiat’s styling is uniquely Italian and definitely a different taste for us Yanks here in the states. I mean, it can’t even fit the good o’l American “Super-size me” 64 ounce Double Gulp from the local 7/11 in the front cup holders (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing).The 500 is offered in three different trim levels- Pop, Sport, and Lounge- and our Sport model was equipped with fog lights, a moon roof and a set of very attractive 16-inch alloy wheels. Put this side by side to a Smart Car and it’s not even close to a fair fight. In fact, it’s the first real B-segment car available in the U.S. today that doesn’t make the driver look like a complete cockswald. On that note, we noticed that throughout the day the 500 turned A LOT of heads, piquing the interest of nearly every nearby driver at stoplights and passerbys outside and for the most part receiving nods of approval.
Move inside and you’ll find yourself in front of a widespread dashboard. All control buttons are large and obviously placed, although we found that, for whatever reason, it did take a fair amount of getting used to before we felt completely comfortable using them. Fiat also do a fantastic job on the attractive design and placement of the 500′s speedo with the tachometer fitting nicely inside.
The most noticeable part of being inside the 500 was the more than ample amounts of space available. I’m 6′ tall and was delighted to find that my head wasn’t hitting the ceiling and my chair would slide back far enough to where I could fully extend my legs when pushing the pedals. The backseats, however, were akin to the backseats of a Porsche 911- they’d work very well if your kids didn’t have legs or are Gary Coleman.
But seats and looks and amenities aside, we wanted to know how the car performs. The people at Fiat say that the 500 will be marketed primarily towards driving enthusiasts. You know, the kind of person who has a pure and honest passion for driving but then, for some inexplicable reason, bought a Smart ForTwo and now wants out. Talk about your specific niches.
We decided to test the Fiat’s performance out by taking a “spirited” drive up Emigration Canyon. Along for the drive was what we consider to be the car’s chief rival, the Mini Cooper. I’ll tell you this- even if there’s not much you like about the car’s looks or the interior, there isn’t much you can dislike about the way it drives. The 500 feels light and impressively responsive. Pushing the “Sport” button will firm up the suspension and tighten the steering, making that last sentence doubly so. Corner after corner it became even more clear that this is what the 500 was developed for- it was in its element.
The tiny 1.4L, 100hp motor did leave us wanting for more at times, however, it wasn’t a deal breaker, especially considering that engine has about as much displacement as Rebecca Black has talent. Interesting technical side note here- the 500′s engine doesn’t have any camshafts, relying instead on electronically controlled hydraulic devices to open valves. The result? Fiat says that this radical change increases the power and efficiency of the motor. Back to the drive. During the entire drive, we purposely kept the 27/34 mpg fuel economy in mind as we passed by a gas station on the way to Emigration Canyon, displaying a $3.67 per gallon price tag. The H2 driver behind us was probably swallowing hard. Who needs a retirement savings anyways?
The 5-speed manual transmission is pretty standard. It’s certainly no S2000 short throw, but it does its job just fine and was certainly better to have for the Emigration hill climb over the alternative 6-speed automatic also offered by Fiat. We did note that it takes a while for the clutch to let out and catch, something that may cause experienced manual drivers a moment to get used to.
At the end of the performance drive, we had a problem because when asked which was better- the Mini or the Fiat- we couldn’t give a straight answer. The cars give two completely different experiences. The Mini is more performance oriented while the Fiat is just happy to be there zipping around corners. It’s like comparing apples to democrats.
The Fiat 500 will start at $15,500 for the basic Pop model, $17,500 for the Sport, and $19,500 for the Lounge, essentially a Pop in more expensive clothing. It should be pointed out that for these prices, a driver must be an enthusiast to choose the Fiat. There are an abundance of cars that are similarly priced to the 500. Choosing the Fiat 500 will show that you’re willing to break away from boring sedans and the awful other B-segment cars available, instead going for a practical city car that gets good gas mileage and is comfortable, but is bred for the twist and turns of a canyon road. Will Americans buy into that? We think they will because good things really do come in small packages.
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