Americanized Italian import hits all the right buttons
by: NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION The 2012 Fiat 500 is surprisingly roomy on the inside, despite being shown here dwarfed by a new Jeep Wrangler, another Chrysler product.

I'll admit I was a little nervous when I picked up a 2012 Fiat 500 on my way from Portland to Seattle for that city's early November auto show.

I was about to jump onto a freeway crowded with large semi-trucks in just about the smallest car in the world. Not only that, but my test model was a convertible, and cloth tops are notorious for shaking at higher speeds. The engine is also very tiny, just 1.4 liters producing a mere 101 horsepower. And let's be honest - the Italian automaker stopped selling cars in America 26 years ago after earning a well-deserved reputation for unreliability.

But I'm pleased to report that all of my fears were unfounded. Yes, the Fiat 500 is a very small car, six inches shorter and two inches narrower than a BMW Mini. But it is four inches taller than a Mini and front seat occupants sit up high on thickly-padded seats, making the Fiat 500 feel much bigger than it is. Amazingly enough, I actually found myself looking down on the passengers in some older compact cars as I drove up the freeway.

The convertible top did not vibrate or shudder at freeway speeds. The design is more like a large cloth sunroof that retracts on rails, a trick that keeps the top stiff when it is up. Nearby trucks were louder than I imagine a hardtop would be, but not to point of being scary.

Though tiny, the four-cylinder engine provided adequate power, even though my test car came with the six-speed automatic transmission instead of the five-speed manual. I was even able to accelerate past slower cars and trucks on steep hills, although a heavy foot was sometimes required.

After returning from Seattle, I kept the Fiat 500 for another few days, eventually putting hundreds of trouble-free miles on it. Although that's not a fair measure of reliability, legend has it that some earlier Fiats could not go that long without a repair or two.

As everyone who follows car news knows, Fiat is coming back to America through its partnership with Chrysler. Fiat gave Chrysler enough money to emerge from bankruptcy, and now controls the Detroit manufacturer. The alliance is surely one of the strangest in automotive history. Fiat makes some of the smallest, most fuel-efficient cars on the planets. Chrysler makes some of the biggest gas-guzzlers around. But the arrangement is already producing benefits for both companies. The Fiat 500 is now being sold throughout the country at stand-alone, Chrysler-affiliated dealerships. And Fiat money has allowed Chrysler to substantially upgrade its entire product line. Joint ventures are reportedly in the works that promise the best of both the old and new worlds.

The 2012 Fiat 500 certainly lives up to the promise of the merger. The original Italian version was produced from 1957 to 1975 and featured a rear-mounted 500cc (half-liter), air-cooled engine. Like the original British Mini and VW Beetle, it was noted for its large interior, nimble handling and fuel economy. Fiat reintroduced the 500 in Europe a few years ago as a thoroughly modern but still small car with a water-cooled, front-mounted engine. It has been a huge hit across the continent.

The American version maintains the quirky charm of the original and reintroduced Fiat 500. It is genuinely retro and cute, with a blunt nose, chopped off rear end, and front and back tires pushed out as far as possible. Ours came with 15-inch aluminum wheels that added a touch of sportiness. People looked at it everywhere, especially women, who seemed to find it amusing.

The interior also seems genuinely old-school Italian, with a simple dash and attention to creature comforts. Our optional leather seats were surprisingly plush, while the accompanying leather door panels added a touch of class. Even the hard plastic in the interior looked like it belonged there instead of being a cost-cutting decision. Rear seat room is, of course, limited on such a small car, but two adults could survive a long trip if the front seats were pulled forward enough. Getting in and out of them is challenging, however, because of the steeply angled rear side windows.

The American version of the Fiat 500 looks like the European one, but it is entirely different. Although the front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout is the same, every body panel and much of the substructure has been upgraded to meet this country's safety standards and consumer tastes. For example, all Fiat 500s sold over here have a complete array of airbags, included one in each A pillar along the sides of the front window. Adding these required the A pillars to be enlarged, just one of many alterations undertaken before the federal government would approve them.

Other safety features include 4-wheel ABS, emergency braking assist, stability control, traction control, child seat anchors and tire pressure monitoring.

The six-speed automatic is also unique to the American models. It is remarkably sophisticated, offering three different drive modes. The normal mode is adequate for most drivers, with decent acceleration for around town driving. Pressing a dash mounted button switches to Sports Auto mode, which results in the quicker engine revs and shifts. The shift lever can also be pulled over into a manual mode that holds the transmission into gear until the driver goes up or down through the gears. A five-speed manual transmission is also available.

For even more fun, Fiat is promising to introduce an American version of it high-performance Abarth model with a turbocharged engine and suspension upgrades in the foreseeable future.

Over the course of a week, the Fait 500 proved itself to be a surprisingly fun and solid driver. The suspension is firm without being harsh, offering something that is missing in most cars these days, genuinely road feel. Pavement texture is communicated to their driver through the seat and steering wheel, resulting in a little bucking over bad roads but overall good handling otherwise. And it could be parked anywhere.

The sunroof-style convertible top proved to be a mixed blessing. It opens in stages, allowing the driver to expose just the front seats, the front and back seats, or the backs of the rear seat passengers, too. The top does not fully retract into the trunk, however, meaning that the rearview mirror is blocked when it is all the way down. Since there is no back-up camera, only the side mirrors provide rear visibility then, which is a little disconcerting. The rear window continues to stay up and function during the first two stages, however.

The trunk is also quite small, although the rear seats fold down for more cargo space. Still, the Fiat 500 is not designed for a weekend trip with four people and all their luggage. Two people and their luggage at the most, which is more romantic, anyway.

And aren't the Italians famous for that, too?

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 500.

• Manufacturer: Fiat.

• Class: Microcar.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door sedan.

• Engines: 1.4-liter (101 hp).

• Transmission: Five-speed manual; Six-speed automatic with sport and manual shift modes - as tested.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 34/38; 27/32 (as tested).

• Prices: Starting around $16,000 (about $25,550 as tested).

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