When Fiat vanished from US shores almost 30 years ago, the brand shrunk back to Italy under a most embarrassing cloud — its tailpipe tucked shamefully between its wobbly rear wheels, headlights sad and filled with shame. The “Fix It Again Tony” acronym long cemented in the American psyche via a parade of flimsy, shop-prone vehicles, Fiat had little option but to return home and regroup, hoping wistfully for a second chance at American Romance.
Then Chrysler went up on the trading block in 2008, and that second chance suddenly materialized. Fiat looked at the stumbling American brand and saw a slew of potent, under-promoted vehicles — not to mention a variety of V8 and Hemi powerplants to infuse some gusto into its highly efficient 4-cylinder fleets. But perhaps more importantly, it also cunningly recognized the purchase would create an instant channel to sell its wares across the pond via Chrysler’s expansive built-in dealership network. So like Casanova witnessing a bella Americana wandering Piazza San Marco alone and vulnerable, the giant Italian conglomerate sprung to action. Not only did Fiat secure an instant sales pipeline when it bought Chrysler, it saved a beloved American brand in the process.
Now, after years of careful planning and diligent strategic marketing, Fiat is reading to make its long awaited return to US shores. And it’s making that return with the best weapon in its arsenal: the diminutive, gorgeously penned Fiat 500 Cinquecento — a stunning throwback to perhaps the most iconic compact of the 1950s. But will this rekindled romance be a brief, flashy tryst — steamed up by nostalgic sheen and the appeal of unquestionably good looks — or will it be an international marriage, a long term union blessed with buzzing dealerships, mutual admiration and black inked legers?
After a week zipping the headturning 500 around Los Angeles, we’re firmly betting on the latter.
Hit the Jump to continue reading FIAT 500 Unlocked: the LIAS Testdrive…
Since making its debut in 2007, the 500 has sold over half a million units and nabbed European 2009 Car of the Year honors along the way. An unquestionable blockbuster in Europe, it’s still unclear how the US market will respond to the quirky, but oh-so-adorable Cinquecento. The original 500 that hit streets in 1957 was such a design epiphany that its famed designer Dante Giacosa adorned its fascia with a mustache — legendarily just to put a flaw on an otherwise immaculate design. It was, quite simply, one of the best Italian product designs of the 1950s — given a culture rich in the language of visual arts, that’s saying quite a bit. So replicating the original 500’s magic was no easy task — and the fact that the modern Cinquecento celebrates the original’s lines without looking kitschy or dated is a resounding triumph for Fiat head designer Roberto Giolito.
The Cinquecento is undeniably Italian, like a Milan suit. Perfection in simplicity. Other compacts in the market hide their poor design behind all sorts of cosmetic distractions — bits of chrome, superfluous plastic panels, etc. Consider them the vehicular version of the “Magic Johnson” suit (aka the Deion “Primetime” Sanders). Whereas one’s poor design is covered up via giant stripes, knee-long jackets or sharkskin veneers, the Italian suit is clean, sharp. As is the 500: minimal, elegant, lucid. This minimalism is a motif repeated throughout the design process, remaining joyously faithful to the original even down to retaining its iconic clamshell hood. Other nice touches remain, like the 3 buttons across the dash that mimic the levers of the original. There’s also a large, toy-like combined concentric speedometer and tachometer. It’s playful, but functional.
The minimal, but elegant, interior of the Fiat 5oo Cinquecento
The Cinquecento will be sold in proprietary Fiat Studios, a term for their dealerships coined to underscore Fiat’s design-centric philosophy. They will launch with 130 Studios across the country, offering the 500 in 3 packages: Pop ($15,500), Sport ($17,500) and Lounge ($19,500). The Pop being the base 500, with the Lounge a more loaded model. But if you read this site, then you’ll only want to consider the Sport: it is aesthetically the sexiest of the bunch, and available only in the USA. The Sport package features a more aggressive front and rear fascia, 16-inch aluminum wheels, rear spoiler, red brake calipers, sportier seats, Bose premium stereo and a tweaked exhaust note, all standard. All come with 14 exterior color choices, which is matched with the color of the interior.
Conscious of their “Fix It Again Tony” past, Fiat is pre-emptively striking with a powerful warranty shield, making safety and reliability paramount with safety features standard across all 3 models, including 7 airbags — two at knee-level. Features like power windows, locks and mirrors are standard across the board, as is its 4-Year/50,000 mile warranty.
With only 101 horses trotting forth from its Michigan-built 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder engine, the biggest complaint with the 500 is its impotency. The counter argument, of course, is that its highly efficient four-banger offers fantastic mileage with 38 mpgs. There are two simple solutions to this dilemma: #1. Hit the “Sport” button on the dash — it tightens the steering, squirts more juice with the throttle, and in the automatic transmission holds at lower gears longer for higher revs. #2. Opt for the five-speed manual over the six-speed automatic transmission. The results, when you choose your shifting points, is a surprisingly aggressive, zippy drive. It’s flat out fun to drive — someone in your way? Downshift, slam the throttle and you’re passing him by the wayside with the 4-cylinder banging away. The automatic? Eh, not so much. Similar to our assessment of the Nissan Juke and most CRV transmissions in general, with an engine this diminutive you want to have full control of the shifts if you plan on having any excitement. But again, this will only bother you if you carry a soft heart for sheer horsepower. If you’re a daily commuter that wants a compact, light, and sporty headturner — especially one with a sub-$20K pricetag — the 500 is your little Italian bambino. Just make sure to tick the manual option, you’ll have a lot more fun.
The Cabriolet arrives in dealerships later this year, heralded by a savvy, green Pear Tree campaign. But for LIAS, we’ll be counting down the minutes till Fiat’s turbocharged 500 Abarth hits US shores in early 2012 — with 35% more horsepower, it just may be many an American’s first Italian luxury.