For many older car buyers, FIAT was the acronym for "Fix It Again, Tony," or some other such reminder that Fiat products on American roads did not hold up well.

The return of Fiat to the U.S. market with the retrostyled 2012 Fiat 500 promises a total rewrite of that earlier trauma. Or does it?

Fiat now owns a major stake in Chrysler, and in Europe the company is a major player, with products under its corporate umbrella that cover everything from the smallest city cars to luxury sports brands (Maserati and Ferrari).

Fiat has returned to the U.S. market with the iconic "500" model, a rebirth of one of its 1960s classics, just as the 1999 Volkswagen "New Beetle" and the 2002 Mini Cooper were reborn versions of those icons.

But while retro designs make a fashion statement, does the Fiat 500 have all the actual details and features to serve well on American roads in the 21st Century?

From the outside, this is new sculpting on the broad inspiration of the original. The front logo mimics the design of yesteryear, and the general sweep of metal on the front is at least reminiscent of the original design.  

The new model is larger, with longer doors, for easier interior access and more sweeping lines that provide better aerodynamics (claimed at a drag coeffcient of 0.35).

The view from the back might be the biggest visual distinction between old and new. The original was rear-engined and had considerable venting where the new model has a hatchback, with its front-wheel-drive powertrain under the stubby front hood.

Inside, this new vehicular fashion statement is better detailed and finished for the American market than in the version delivered in Europe.  Better seats and smoother finish on the dash, plus even bigger cup holders, show that Fiat has thought carefully about American driving expectations.

For the U.S., drivers can choose between the 500C Cabrio, with a roll-back cloth top, and a regular hardtop that offers three levels of trim: Pop, Sport, and Lounge.

Currently the only engine is a 1.4-liter four-cylinder using Fiat's MultiAir electronic valves. Transmissions include a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

From conversations with several new owners of the 2012 Fiat 500, we learned that  the 101-horsepower engine (with a mere 98 foot-pounds of torque) is adequate to carry the 2400-pound car and four passengers around any of our cities and up even Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Nobody will buy a 2012 Fiat 500 to drag-race, but with one or two passengers it should be fun driving on the scenic Highway 1 that runs along the edge of California's coast.

Most American drivers are likely to opt for the slightly less-frugal automatic version, though Fiat says manual orders have run higher than it expected in early  months.

The EPA gas-mileage ratings of 27 mpg city, 34 mpg highway for the automatic (or 30 city, 38 highway for the manual) won't do much damage to anyone's VISA card statement.

In sum, sure, the 2012 Fiat 500 is a Fashion Statement in capital letters, both inside and out. But it's also fun, and at 2400 pounds, it's a nimble and quick-handling city transport.

While there are vehicles that sip even less fuel, the Fiat 500 is still a true economy car by most measures. Is it better than the (soon-to-be-replaced) Volkswagen Beetle or the Mini Cooper?

Fashion is all in the eye of the beholder.


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