What's fun, trendy, affordable and super exciting to drive these days? It's the Fiat 500.
Small in stature yet big on personality, the 2012 Fiat 500 takes the commuter car to a new level of style and sophistication.
The Cinquecento, as it's known in its Italian homeland, can seat four people in a cabin that offers excellent safety features and unique interiors in a variety of colour and trim combinations.
The chance of seeing two completely identical versions of the Fiat 500 parked together is remote as it's offered in 14 exterior colours, five seat combinations and six wheel choices.
You can also add accessory body graphic accents. It certainly has that something extra that makes it stand out in a crowd.
The 500 also comes in two body styles - a hardtop (hatchback) and a convertible. The hardtop 500, which is the focus of this review, is offered in three trim levels: Pop ($15,995); Sport ($18,500); and Lounge ($19,500). There's also a high-performance Abarth edition ($23,995). The 500c (convertible) comes in base Pop ($19,995) and Lounge ($22,995).
Distinctive both inside and out, each trim level has a unique personality, which allows the 500 to attract a wide variety of buyers.
Competitors also come in many forms, from out-and-out commuters like Scion iQ and Smart ForTwo to the Mini Cooper or the Ford Fiesta or Mazda2. Good examples of a new breed of stylish small cars that offer more than just A-to-B transportation.
The original Fiat 500, which dates back to 1957, came with a 0.5-litre engine in the rear. In the new 500, a sophisticated 1.4-litre MultiAir engine drives the front wheels and it can be coupled with either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
The MultiAir engine technology includes hydraulic actuated intake valves controlled by fast-responding, electronic solenoids. The high level of control of the air-fuel mix entering each combustion chamber improves both engine efficiency and power.
Fiat clams this system achieves both a 10 per cent power and fuel efficiency improvement, while at the same time decreasing CO2 emissions by up to 10 per cent. It also claims that with a full (40-litre) tank of fuel the 500 can be driven about 780 kilometres on the highway. Mind you, the fuel of choice is the more costly premium type.
The 500 is sold through selected Chrysler dealerships, which have separate Fiat showrooms. The North American version of the Fiat 500 is made in Mexico.
According to Fiat, approximately 60 per cent of all Fiat 500 buyers are male. My unscientific observations, however, don't concur. "It's adorable" and "cute" were compliments its many female admirers seemed to use within my earshot. The males were largely silent, but perhaps they were secret admirers.
My test 500 was a black Lounge edition, which looked unexpectedly elegant as this trim level comes with more chrome trim than all the others. Door handles, side mirrors, bumpers and even the licence plate garnish all came with the "bling" treatment. Nice little style detail was the 500 emblem inside the headlight assembly.
My test 500 was equally refined on the inside and had grey leather upholstery and chrome trim features. Its glossy black exterior colour also showed up inside on the dash panel. It's a nice nostalgic style feature reminiscent of the old metal dash panels.
The driver instrument pod is small and also had a retro look to it, but it's a little crowded. A digital readout, a tachometer and a speedometer were all housed in the small gauge pod in front of the driver. The dials are a little tricky to figure out at first, however, owner-drivers will probably get use to this fairly quickly.
Unlike some of its competitors, the 500 actually has a decent-size trunk, even with the rear seats in place. Legroom for rear seat occupants is basically at the discretion of front seat occupants, and the round head restraints on all the seats are interesting and distinctive design element.
The 500 comes standard with seven airbags (including a driver's knee airbag) and it received a top rating in European crash tests. It also comes standard with a host of active safety features, including electronic stability and traction control.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also gave the 2012 Fiat 500, made after July 2011, a "top safety pick" rating. However, a structural problem with the driver's seat, in models made before this date, caused it to have a lower rating.
The manual seat cushion height adjustment on my test 500 didn't seem to function as it should. Combined with a lower roof height caused by an optional sunroof, headroom was limited, an issue I didn't have with 500c that I drove last year.
That said, it's still a cleverly designed cabin that makes the most of the space available. My test 500 came with the five-speed manual transmission. The shift lever is on a pedestal that extends out from the centre of the dash and is positioned handily to the steering wheel.
The short throws on the shift pattern were easy to navigate and gear engagement had a nice solid feel, even though it's a remote cable-type setup.
The clutch pedal action was on the light side and its engagement smooth, making it easy to use. Acceleration to 100 km/h was timed at 12.3 seconds at the Canadian Car of the Year evaluation event, but it seems faster when you're inside a 500. For comparison, the Honda Civic sedan at the same event was clocked at 9.9 seconds to 100 km/h.
The 500 is still a fun car to drive because of its brisk off-the-line performance and uniquely agile handling qualities. Its lightweight, impish driving manners are very appealing and parking a 500 is ridiculously easy, making it a terrific city runabout.
There's also a Sport button on the dash that when pushed changes steering feel and engine tuning.
The steering tightens and the engine responds a little faster. While not dramatic, it certainly adds to the driving experience.
Italian styling flair combines with advanced technologies to provide outstanding fuel economy in a compact affordable package, that's the "fantastico" Fiat 500.
The Specs - 2012 Fiat 500
Trim levels: Pop, Sport, Lounge & Abarth
Sticker Price: $15,995 to $23,995
Power: 1.4 litre I4, 101-horsepower
Transmission: 5-speed manual & 6-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (man): 6.7/5.1 L/100km (city/highway)
Fuel Economy (auto): 7.4/5.7 L/100km (city/highway)
Basic Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty: 5 years / 100,000 km
Rust Warranty: 5 years / 100,000 km
Ford Fiesta $12,999 - $18,899
Mazda2 $14,095 - $19,345
Mini Cooper: $21,950 - $38,400
Scion iQ: $16,760
Smart ForTwo: $14,350 - $23,900
On the web:
Consumer site: www.fiatcanada.com