The * * * * 2012 Fiat 500 coupe is an eye-opening double-shot of espresso to the subcompact segment.
Lavishly supplied with style and spunk, the little 500 should also be a wakeup call to any automaker who thinks it can still get away with selling dull, poorly equipped small cars.
The 500 wrings every drop of performance out of its petite platform and engine, inviting you to zip through the gears and slice through traffic.
There’s precious little interior storage space, and the 500’s taste for premium gasoline is disappointing in an otherwise thrifty little car, but the first Fiat to go on sale in America in nearly 30 years marks a welcome return by an Italian favorite.
Ciao, bella. Hello, beautiful.
Much to love about ’12 Fiat 500
I want to sing along with Dean Martin. “Volare,” “Arrivederci Roma,” “Mambo Italiano,” “That’s Amore.”
I’m feeling it. I’m awash with Italian romance, besotted by the Fiat 500, ready to toss three coins in the fountain and hurry back to Sorrento.
The little 500 borrows its name from a string of historic small Fiats that dates to 1936, but the 2012 model that just went on sale is strictly 21st Century. It has the latest electronic, voice-recognition, safety and engine technology.
Prices for the 2012 Fiat 500 start at $15,500. All 500s come with a 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that features MultiAir, Fiat’s award-winning valve-timing system that boosts power and reduces fuel consumption.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard. Stepping up to a six-speed automatic raises the base price to $16,500.
I tested a well-equipped Fiat 500 Sport with the manual transmission, a power sunroof, Bose sound system and other features. It stickered at $19,400. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Fiat 500 competes with small cars like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Mini Cooper and Smart Fortwo.
The 500 is smaller than the Fiesta, Fit and Mini, but it offers loads of space for two and the ability to carry four when absolutely necessary.
The 500’s styling borrows from a predecessor that went on sale in the 1950s. Affordable and easy to fix, that 500 was one of the cars that put Europe on wheels.
The short, round vehicle with the high roof recalls not just the old 500 but also Bibendum, the tire-bodied Michelin man. Despite its small size — 7.2 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper, 20.5 inches shorter than a Fiesta hatchback, nearly 3 1/2 feet shorter than a Chevy Cruze — the 500 has plenty of room in the front seat, including sky-high headroom.
The rear seat should be encased in glass: It’s for use only in emergencies, but it will hold two. Cargo capacity is 9.5 cubic feet with the back seats up and a very useful 30.1 with them folded flat.
A big binnacle in front of the driver houses the speedometer and tachometer in concentric rings, with the fuel gauge and other info in the center. The layout is unusual, but intuitive. I got used to it in minutes.
Bright plastic inserts that matched the exterior paint adorned the dashboard. The seats were bordered in wonderful cocoa-brown leather, with a handsome gray vinyl in the middle.
There’s very little storage space. Floor-mounted cupholders don’t leave much room for sunglasses, phones, etc. The small glove box was nearly full when loaded with an iPod and Wayfarers in addition to the owner’s manual.
The 500’s voice-recognition system to control phones, iPods, etc., is terrific. Fiat developed it with Microsoft, as Ford did with its equally excellent Sync system. Fiat had Blue & Me on the road in Europe a couple of years before Sync debuted in America.
The 500 is the first car with Blue & Me in America, but you can expect to see it on every Fiat and Alfa, and probably future Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models.
The light and maneuverable 500 rewards enthusiastic driving. I got more Italian with every minute behind the wheel, revving the engine to the redline, shifting fast and frequently, passing with abandon and slipping into gaps in traffic that were as thin as a lira.
The car tracks flat and stable through curves. The suspension absorbed bumps and held the road well. The 500 was comfortable and secure on fast highway runs, though wind noise was noticeable.
The 500’s fuel economy is good, but not great. Its EPA rating of 30 m.p.g. city, 38 highway and 33 in combined driving, matches or trails larger cars like the Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Ford Fiesta and Focus SFE.
The 500 is so overflowing with style, features and fun that I don’t expect fuel economy to be anybody’s No. 1 reason to buy, but the car’s preference for premium fuel — recommended for best power and fuel economy, but not required — was a disappointment.
Despite that, I’m smitten. I drove the 500 down the street with a cloud at my feet. That’s amore, Dino.
By:Mark Phelan/Detroit Free Press