The Italian Job: Fiat Returns to the US
Fiat’s return to the U.S. market was met with as much trepidation as it was anticipation. Not merely because the company would be riding across the Atlantic on the shoulders of its most recent acquisition, the Chrysler Corp., but because of its lackluster history in the United States during the ’70s and ’80s. The company withdrew from the U.S. market in 1984, and for the most part, hasn’t been missed.
Fiat aims to change all that with its Fiat 500, a miniscule two-door hatchback that oozes cuteness. A long-standing favorite in Europe, the U.S. market 500 is built in Mexico with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder Fiat-designed engine assembled by Chrysler employees in Michigan. It’s about as Italian as an Olive Garden chef, but to be fair, most cars on the market today are “world cars” with assembly plants and suppliers located around the globe. The question now is, how will the Fiat brand be accepted this time around? And how good of a car is the 500?
We can’t predict the former (although sales at press time are well below expectations), but we can tell you that there’s a lot to like about the Fiat 500. First and foremost to motorhome owners, the manual transmission version is dinghy towable, and the procedure couldn’t be simpler: put it in neutral and insert the key into the ignition to unlock the steering wheel. The 500 is also very light at only 2,363 pounds, so it’s towable behind just about any motorhome.
The Fiat 500 may be a subcompact as far its EPA vehicle class is concerned, but unlike some other cars in the segment, a low price point wasn’t Fiat’s primary objective. Like the popular MINI, the 500 is part of a growing trend toward small, premium cars aimed at people who don’t want to sacrifice style and comfort for something that’s economical and easy to park. As such, the base model, the Pop, starts at $15,500, the Sport at $17,500 and the Lounge at a heady $19,500 (there are also special models like the $23,500 Gucci model, the $22,000 Pink Ribbon and the upcoming performance-oriented Abarth at $22,000). That’s a lot of green for a little car, but when you look a little closer you’ll start to understand why.
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For one thing, the 500 is offered in 14 exterior colors with 14 available interior color and material combinations — try finding that in another subcompact. And it comes standard with features like air conditioning, cruise control, power windows/locks and power heated exterior mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, AM/FM/CD radio and a BLUE&ME hands free communication system with iPod, USB and MP3 interface. All models also include safety features like four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist, electronic stability control, traction control and seven air bags.
The Sport model adds a rear spoiler, unique front/rear fascias, 16-inch alloy wheels, sporty red brake calipers, sport-tuned suspension, fog lamps and Bose premium audio. Lounge, as its name would suggest, leans more toward luxury, with a standard six-speed automatic transmission (not towable), fixed glass roof, bright exterior accents and climate control.
To read Chris’ full evaluation of the Fiat 500 and how to turn the small wonder into an ideal dinghy vehicle, find the May issue of MotorHome on newsstands or subscribe!
Body style: Two-door hatchback
Engine: 1.4-l SOHC 16-valve inline
Horsepower: 101 bhp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 98 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Overall length: 11′ 7.6″
Overall height: 4′ 11.8″
Curb weight: 2,363 lbs
Shoulder room: 49.4″
Brakes, front: ventilated disc
Brakes, rear: solid disc
Standard safety features: 7 air bags, ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, traction control, stability control, tire pressure monitoring system
Price as Tested: $19,000
Fiat USA: 888-242-6342, www.fiatusa.com