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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fiat 500

2013 Fiat 500e electric car, Los Angeles drive event, April 2013

When the Fiat 500 minicar brought the Italian brand back to the U.S. market after a quarter of a century, it took awhile for Fiat to find its stride. But with an expanding lineup of models and plans for more to come, tens of thousands of the little car are already running around on roads designed for much larger vehicles.

Today, the Fiat 500 comes as a three-door hatchback, a two-door convertible with a roll-back cloth roof that's known as the Cabriolet, the Abarth hot-hatch model--which can now be ordered as a Cabrio as well--and the 500T model, a quieter and less noticeable performance model that splits the difference between the standard 500 and the Abarth. Starting this summer in California and Oregon only, there will also be a 500e electric car.

The Abarth in particular won awareness for Fiat through some truly memorable TV ads, as well as the striking scorpion on its badge and the blaring rasp of its distinctive exhaust note. But all Fiat 500 models are fun to drive, and the car has a personality that comes through loud and clear--from the exterior lines, the stylish modern interior, and the chassis tuning that proves it can be more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car. With a growing variety of models that bring small-car style and panache to a variety of different budgets and tastes, the Fiat 500 can already be deemed a successful relaunch in the tough U.S. car market.

Two new models of the Fiat 500 will arrive for 2014. One is the all-electric 500e, a "compliance car" required for Chrysler-Fiat to meet California's zero-emission vehicle regulations. In all likelihood, only several hundred will be built and sold--and buyers outside California and Oregon may never see the 500e. That's a shame, because it's fun to drive and perhaps the best-handling of all the electric car conversions produced by major automakers.

Aiming more for the mainstream, the 500 range will also expand into bigger cars. The 500L is a much larger five-door hatchback that will form the basis for an all-wheel drive 500X crossover the following year. The 500L and 500X compete directly with the MINI Cooper Countryman, itself a much larger car than the three-door MINI which returned that brand to the U.S. market. The 500L actually has little in common with the rest of the 500 range beyond its name, but it lets Fiat offer a model that competes with the most popular models in the growing MINI range.

The basic Fiat 500 three-door hatchback is available in four trim levels: Pop, Sport, Lounge, and Gucci; Convertible models are only offered in Pop, Lounge, and Gucci trims. The base model is the three-door hatchback, and the 500c cabriolet is the same car fitted with a cloth roll-back roof and a tiny trunk lid, giving open-air driving without the loss of structural rigidity that comes from a top that folds down completely.

The core 500 models that went on sale in the U.S. for the 2012 model year was introduced in Europe as a 2008 model. It quickly won rave reviews for its interior and exterior style, high level of standard features, and solid, high-quality assembly. Highlighting the international nature of the auto business, while Fiat 500 models sold in Europe are built in Poland, for the U.S. market they’ll be built in Mexico—and sold at an increasing number of Chrysler dealers.

Like the MINI Cooper it competes with, almost model for model, the Fiat 500 harkens back to a beloved national automotive icon from the Sixties. In this case, it’s the Fiat 500 that was built from 1957 to 1975. And like the Mini Cooper, the new model is larger, faster, far better equipped, and immeasurably safer. The Fiat 500 is not, in other words, a competitor for econobox models like the Hyundai Accent or Toyota Yaris; it’s a lifestyle choice, a style accessory that also happens to be fun to drive and easy to park in tight urban areas.

All 500 models use a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that Fiat now builds in North America, shared with a growing array of new models from Dodge and Jeep. Fuel economy figures land at 30 mpg city, 38 highway—similar to those for the MINI Cooper. In early drives of the 500, we found the steering to be particularly enjoyable and lively, although straight-line performance was lackluster in the base model and a cramped interior plus big doses of engine and road noise rounded out the picture. The 500 has some of the most cramped front-seat quarters of any new production car; the arrival of the 500L will provide a 500 model with a usable back seat at last.

You can get a few more features in the Fiat 500 than you'll find in most other small cars, like leather heated seats and rear parking sensors, and there are some 500,000 different build combinations thanks to plenty of possibilities for trims, colors, and accessories.

The Fiat 500 Abarth is the hot-hatch version, competing with the Mini Cooper S, courtesy of a turbocharged engine that puts out 160 horsepower, stiffer suspension, and 16-inch sport wheels. Special Koni Frequency Selective Dampers plus plenty of other dynamic and appearance upgrades make this one of the year's most enjoyable drives, for those who enjoy nimble minicars. Given Fiat's hugely popular TV ads with model Catrinel Menghia that launched the little hot rod, the Abarth may be the best-known 500 right now.

For buyers who want Abarth performance in a more subtle package--no dressy body add-ons or scorpion badges--the 500T model uses a slightly less powerful version of its turbocharged engine in an incognito body.

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