Upon returning from a late summer European trip, “Drive…He Said” received a validation of our affection for “cartoon cars”. Whether at the circus, in animated cartoons, or quirky caper flicks (“The Italian Job”), and Britcoms (“Mr Bean”), watching humans or characters wriggling in and out of tiny cars can be maddeningly hilarious. The Italians were so smitten with Mickey Mouse that they affixed their moniker for the diminutive Disney cartoon character, Topolino, to an equally pint-sized FIAT.
Thirty years after the Turinese automaker pulled out of the U.S. market, FIAT is squeezing back into an American retro city-car segment dominated by the strong selling MINI Cooper. Can cute and retro, imbued with Italian heritage, sway urbanites as well as earn the pardons of the American Cognoscenti, whose memories of rusted out 131 Super Bravas or X 1/9s haven’t completely faded?
The nuova-for-2012 FIAT 500 Sport inherits plenty of styling genes from the classic FIAT Nuova 500 (1957-1975), even if chrome bumpers were tossed in favor of the modern integrated-type covered in body-colored plastic. The Sport trim level is decked out with more pronounced front and rear valances, fitted with contrasting honeycombed inserts, and with a rear roof spoiler.
Based off of FIAT’s versatile Uno model the 2012 FIAT 500 has grown well beyond the classic Nuova 500c in wheelbase and length by 20″-inches, and width by 12″-inches. Weight has doubled. Press us to find a better execution of a Giallo (yellow) exterior, contrasted by red painted brake calipers on attractive 16″ smoked honeycomb spoke alloy wheels, and we would have to corporate cousin, Ferrari.
The 2012 FIAT 500 evidences how compact utility can live with comfort, convenience and a fair dosage of refinement. A single over-sized driver’s instrument gauge combines a concentric analog speedometer and tach. This is clearly a better implementation than the MINI Cooper’s dinner plate slapped onto the center stack. Pebble grained perforated brown leather inserts on the doors, seats and steering wheel look and feel premium enough.
Audio controls on the dorsal sidse of the steering wheel spokes and power window switches on the center stack are Chrysler-isms. They used to make the PT Cruiser at the Toluca, Mexico plant. Trick items in the FIAT 500 Sport include novel cabin power door lock controls actuated by pushing the door lever away and the sub-woofer module under the front pax seat.
Front seats in the 2012 FIAT 500 have excellent side bolstering and lumbar support for long jaunts. Seat cushion height is tallish, lending to greater ease of ingress/ egress, legroom and outward visibility for such a low car. Opt for the ceiling robbing sunroof and the rake-adjustable only steering wheel adjustable will leave the Gulliver’s out there frantically pumping the seat adjustment lever down to no avail.
Once two average sized adults make it into the rear seat, they are obliged to splay their knees. Notably missing are the sort of grab handles or straps located above the doors that exiting rear seat passengers can grab onto. Notably present are front knee airbags. Cargo space under the rear cargo shelf of the Fiat 500 Sport will store one full sized suitcase. (Take note, fellow ChicagoNow autos blogger, Jill Ciminillo, who has made a habit of squeezing into cargo spaces http://www.chicagonow.com/drive-she-said/2012/02/girl-in-the-trunk-goes-viral.)
What the “Sport” kit brings to the 2012 FIAT 500 is greater playfulness than found in run-of-the-mill city cars. It’s not to say there are MINI Cooper reflexes here. Yet electric assist steering imparts decent linearity. On center feel suffers vagueness, but activating Sport Mode speeds up input response. Meaty Pirelli Cinturato all-season 195/ 45 series rubber on 16″ alloys, don’t let go so easily.
There is a fair bit of suspension travel in the FIAT 500. That translates into a liveable ride even on battered urban pavement. A semi-independent rear suspension permits too much chassis lift. Abruptly backing off the throttle in a fast transition and can illuminate a snap into understeer. Brakes, 4-wheel discs all around, lack the kind of aggressive pad needed for more urgent initial pedal reaction.
The 5-speed manual transmission, with chrome accented shifter mounted up on the center stack, offers short throws. There are the occasional balky downshifts from 5th into 4th. Clutch takeup is fairly light even if disengagement occurs fairly late.
The 1400 cc 4-cylinder Multiair engine has to be wound out to get most of the 101 hp/ 98 ft lb of spin. The short final drive ratio makes it easy to keeps the revs up in the made-in-Michigan motor. Somewhere in the accompanying exhaust rumble exist slight vestiges from the relatives in Maranello.
The 2012 FIAT 500 Sport is no slug… if only next to a 1957 500 cc twin cylinder Nuova 500. The speedometer of the 2012 500 Sport will find the 60 mph mark in 10 seconds, while the 21 horsepower 1957 Nuova won’t even find that mark.
Benzina thirst of the 2012 FIAT 500 Sport has stayed true to the small proportions of the classic Nuova 500. Mid-grade Senzo Piombo was sipped from 31 mpg in urban driving to the mid 40’s on open highway. While acceptable for its class, we note that larger, heavier cars, such as the Chevy Cruze Eco, yield similar consumption.
A base 2012 FIAT 500 with 5-speed manual transmission starts at just over $15,000 at your nearest FIAT Studio. (Yep, that’s what they call FIAT showrooms.) The Sport package in our test car added leather interior trim, the sports functions and the larger 16″ wheels and tires, with the red painted brake calipers. Other notable kit included cruise control, “Blue-And-Me” Bluetooth connectivity, a moon-roof and Bose Efficiency sound system, all in a package coming in at just over $19,000 which undercuts the base MINI Cooper by $1,000. Then again, the more responsive MINI Cooper has an extra gear cog in the manual transmission, offers more power, and is quicker than the FIAT 500 Sport.
Thankfully, the 2012 FIAT 500 Sport is far more than the cute, near “cartoon car” which its progeny was. Call it a viable alternative to the getting-pricier MINI Cooper. Still, for kids of all ages who need their cartoon car chuckles they’ll still have Luigi (the classic FIAT Nuova 500) and Ronnie del Cooper (the MINI Cooper) in “Cars 2“.
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