It’s called the Cinquecento in Italy, but the Fiat 500 spells cheeky fuel-saving funster in any language.
Of all many new arrivals from the revitalized Chrysler organization, the one car on everyone’s mind is the Italian designed, built-in-Mexico Fiat.
The original 500 dates back to 1957 and was Fiat’s way to get Italians off their Vespa motor scooters and into a more practical four-wheeled conveyance. At the time, French, German plus other European automakers were busy ramping up production of their own tiny cars, a pattern that the British would also follow with the advent of the Mini in 1959.
The Mini’s successful 2003 relaunch under BMW’s direction set the stage for a similar return for a brand new Fiat 500 that arrived in Europe for 2007 following a three decade absence. It’s now set to debut here as a 2012 model.
Any comparisons between the 500 to the Mini are inescapable, although the Fiat is a full six-inches shorter and 2.2-inches narrower than its competitor and provides 6.5 inches less distance between the front and rear wheels.
The 500 hatchback’s diminutive size is slightly offset by a relatively tall roofline, but it still remains the smallest four-seater on the market. Chrysler-Fiat refers to the 500 as having “city-friendly proportions,” which translates into room for two adults in front plus a couple of very small children or pets occupying the folding rear seat.
That should be of only passing concern for the hordes of 500 fans who will likely flock to the 130 newly branded Fiat dealerships for an early viewing and test-drive of this iconic small car (the first 500 “Prima Edizione” examples have already been spoken for). What they’ll discover is cutesy set of wheels that stays faithful to the1957 design, except that a water-cooled four-cylinder motor now resides in front, instead of the original’s rear-mounted air-cooled two-cylinder powerplant.
The standard 1.4-liter engine is unique to the 500 in the Fiat line and its components have been designed to maximize power and fuel efficiency while keeping emissions in check. Peak output is 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, which might not sound like a lot, but in fact it should prove sufficient to propel the lightweight 2,350-pound Fiat at a decent clip.
The 500 is tentatively rated at 29 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway with the standard five-speed manual transmission (a six-speed automatic is optional), nearly identical to the Mini Cooper’s fuel economy.
Ordering your very own 500 will require selecting from three distinct trim designations, 14 exterior colors and the same number of seat color and material combinations.
For about $16,200, the base 500 — called “Pop” — features air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, locks and heated outside power mirrors, vehicle-information center, basic audio package and 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps.
Moving up to the 500 Sport adds a tighter suspension, sport-tuned exhaust and steering calibration, distinctive front and rear styling, body cladding, seven-speaker Bose-brand stereo, five-speed manual gearbox and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Along with the six-speed automatic transmission, the top-end Lounge loads up with most of the Sport’s goodies plus a fixed sunroof, chrome exterior accents, fog lamps and premium cloth seat covers.
Among the more interesting options is a portable navigation system that docks onto the top of the instrument panel. Also offered is a system that allows the driver to download onto a memory stick the car’s environmental efficiency stats related to how the 500 is being driven. When plugged into a personal computer after each trip, the system displays the amount of tailpipe emissions produced and suggests methods that drivers can employ to reduce their CO2 footprint.
Given the 500’s relatively miniscule engine, its footprint is not likely to be that big, but Fiat is obviously banking on big success for its little gas sipper. If initial interest and upwardly creeping fuel prices continue, the 500 could wind up batting 1000.