The 2012 Fiat 500 can be viewed as this decade’s Mini: a small, clever, retro-styled minicar that’s appealing, cheeky, fun to drive, and adds a dose of brio to a category often drenched in grim. And like the Mini, the 500 offers a relatively low starting price that buyers can come close to doubling if they’re heavy-handed on the options list that lets them “personalize” their 500s.
The Fiat 500 comes as a three-door hatchback or a two-door Cabriolet (known as the 500C). The latter is an open-air model with a power retractable cloth roof that’s one of the neatest pieces of small-scale engineering we’ve seen. The roof rolls back on rails to several positions, one half-open, one fully-open but with the rear window in place, and one all the way lowered with the top stacked just above the trunk lid.
But anyone expecting the 2012 Fiat 500 to return truly stellar gas mileage numbers is in for a bit of disappointment. It’s rated at 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, and a combined rating of 33 mpg if you fit the five-speed manual gearbox. If you want the six-speed automatic—which has proven less popular than Fiat predicted—the ratings fall substantially to 27 city, 34 highway, and 30 combined.
All 500 models use the same 101-horsepower 1.4-liter MultiAir engine, a Fiat design that we’ll see a lot more of, as it spreads throughout new, smaller Dodge and Jeep vehicles over the next few years. Befitting its global background, 500s sold in North America are assembled in Mexico, but their engines come from Michigan.
To be honest, the 500 is best used as a two-seater. Front seats are comfortable, and the driving position—facing one of the most stylish dashboards south of $50K—is good. The rear seats, on the other hand, are strictly for children. You can fit adults in there for short trips, but they won’t be happy about it. The rear load bay holds many grocery bags, but we’d still recommend soft luggage.
The 500 handles well, though its electric steering doesn’t give quite the roller-skate-on-wheels feeling of the Mini Cooper. You also have to rev the engine to get power, raising noise level substantially. But the car encourages you to use the little power you have, proving the point that it can be more entertaining to drive a slow car fast than a fast one.
The base 500, called the Pop, is fairly well equipped for the category, including a USB jack for music players. There’s also a Sport model with tighter suspension, larger wheels, and some trim differences, and the top of the range is the Lounge model, with many more standard features—packaged sensibly, which is not always the case. Altogether, Fiat says you can order your 500 in one of half a million different combinations.
Small car, small power; big options, big fun.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Fiat 500 on our sister site, TheCarConnection.
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