It was a smash hit in Europe, where it went on sale in 2007. Now, it's reached the U.S.--and, boy, does it get attention.

Driving a 2012 Fiat 500 guarantees stares, questions, and thumbs-up pretty much wherever you go. Perhaps no new car since the arrival of the MINI in 2001 has caused such a stir.

Powered by a 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine--built in Dundee, Michigan--the Fiat 500 minicar is the first of several Fiat and Alfa-Romeo models to arrive in the States, courtesy of Fiat's takeover of the bankrupt Chrysler Corporation in a government-sponsored marriage in 2009.

The little Fiat comes as a three-door hatchback, a two-door 500C Cabriolet with a roll-back cloth roof, and soon a 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth hot-hatch model with 170 hp (launched last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show).

Ratings for the Abarth haven't yet been released, but the EPA rates the 500 hatchback at 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway with the five-speed manual transmission, and 27 city, 34 highway with the six-speed automatic. The 500C Cabrio model, offered only with the automatic, comes in at 27 mpg city, 32 mpg highway.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth live reveal at Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov 2011

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth live reveal at Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov 2011

And the fact that no Fiat 500 hits the magic 40-mpg rating points out just how hard it is to get good aerodynamics and the highest fuel efficiency out of very small cars with very small engines (the far smaller Smart ForTwo has the same problem).

Sales of the Fiat 500 are running considerably below Fiat's admittedly over-optimistic projection of 50,000 annually, with roughly 15,000 sold to date.

Chrysler attributes this to a combination of slower-than-expected dealer openings and changes to the model mix, as the company figures out what features customers actually want on their 500s.

2012 Fiat 500C Cabrio, Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, NY

2012 Fiat 500C Cabrio, Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, NY

Nonetheless, the 2012 Fiat 500's small size, innovative approach, and decent gas-mileage ratings prompted us to name it one of six nominees for the GreenCarReports Best Car To Buy 2012 award.

We'll describe the other contenders, one per day, during the week ahead.

For more information, check out our special page, Best Car To Buy 2012, for all the stories we've written about the candidates and the award.


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