FIAT revs back to U.S. shores with the 500, a sporty mini to make you pazzo

THAT’S AMORE! | FIAT’s redesigned 500 is smaller than a Mini Cooper, but a kicky little ride, with fun Euro styling inside and a moonroof to let the love in. (Photo courtesy FIAT)

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

’12 500 SPORT
FIAT. 101horsepower, 1.4 liter Inline 4.30/38-MPG city/hwy. As-tested price: $19,500


Ever since I saw Under the Tuscan Sun, I’ve had a passion for all things Italian. I’ve visited Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome and come home più in amore (more in love). It’s a land where products are still crafted with elegance and for enjoyment. So if a Vespa scooter is a little too daring for your Italian adventure, the 2012 FIAT 500 may be your idea uno divertimento in una bottiglia (fun in a bottle).

After a 27-year hiatus, FIAT returns to the U.S. market with a car slightly smaller than a Mini Cooper (in some ways, it’s an enclosed Vespa). You can imagine some Italianate temptress in a flowing white frock ripping through backroads and downtown city streets behind the wheel of a Cinquecento, as it’s traditionally called. You’ll also have to imagine the car being built in Toluca, Mexico. And by Chrysler. That’s actually a good thing — the U.S. version is an evolution up from the car that debuted in Europe a couple of years ago. Fashionistas and enthusiasts will recognize its shape from three villas away.

Forma de bellezza (shape of beauty). Design is based on the original 500 (built from 1957 to 1975), however its engine was relocated from south to north and drives the front wheels. Stylists did a great job concealing the flip by placing the engine behind large round headlamps, a stubby hood and graphic relief that all echo the original. Some find the shape as pleasing as a gondola while others despoil it as ugly as a vache bruta (hideous cow).

A canted hatchback with chrome-detailed taillamps are classic. Sport editions like our buck ride on stylish 16-in. alloys, dressed up with a spoiler and chrome exhaust tip, bust through the mist with foglamps and illuminate the night with projector headlamps.

Lusso accessible (affordable luxury). Taken inside, passengers feel like their Toyota Yaris snuck out, co-luxuriated with a Ferrari and came home glowing from the fornication. Painted dash surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, available leather seats and Euro colors make the interior feel like it came from a car costing many multiples more. Automatic climate control, Bose audio with CD player and USB input, power windows and moonroof add comfort while front, side curtain and driver’s knee airbags enhance safety.

The speedometer and tachometer encircle an LCD display for easy read-out; temperature, clock and odometer sit in a large pod behind the steering wheel. Every convenience is present, but fades into its surroundings as not to ruin driving pleasure. Semplice è meglio (simple is better).

Dimostralo! (Prove it!) In my mind, there’s a rolling lane through the Italian countryside calling my name to ring out every ounce of power my car (and willpower) can muster — we must prove ourselves worthy. OK, the 500’s 101-HP 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine — connected to a five-speed manual transmission —isn’t so exotic. A stiff clutch and tiny pedal will give you mid-sleep charley horses, but once mastered, the car is a joy to rev to the reds, clicking through the gears with the snap of a wrist. A dash button puts the car into Sport mode for quicker steering and throttle response. If the engine’s verve doesn’t move you, then maybe the excellent 30/38-MPG city/hwy fuel usage will.

Possa la strade venirti inconro (may the road rise to meet you). Driving the 500 is what sets it apart from the average Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit or Chevy Aveo. Steering is precise, while four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes stop yesterday and a full range of electronic controls keep the car on-path. An independent front, twist-beam rear suspension system is engineered with cost in mind, but sport-tuned shock absorbers and springs reach down to grasp the road. You can toss the car without fear of kissing ditches. Treading down the Interstate at unmentionable speeds seemed calm, quiet and comfortably within the car’s realm.

Aprire il tetto (open the roof). FIAT will not stop with the 500 coupe: A cabriolet will be introduced this summer and a sporty Abarth edition comes later. Alfa Romeo, controlled by FIAT, is also expected to return to the U.S. by 2014. You’ll see FIAT’s large scale influence sooner as small and mid-size Chrysler products are re-engineered onto its platforms beginning next year. All of them may make you want to andare senza camicia (go shirtless) and dance in the street. Or not.

Quanto costa? Steamy steeds from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati have been with us for years, but it has been outside of a lifetime that cars from Italy have been affordable. With an as-tested price of $19,500, the Fiat 500 Sport becomes la voce della ragione, the voice of reason.

Amano l’Italia (love Italy). It’s easy to hone a passion for Italian goods; I wouldn’t give up my Persol sunglasses for anything. You also may crave a Gucci purse, Prada shoes or an Armani suit. But in America the best way to experience Italy is to read Under the Tuscan Sun (or any other Frances Mayes books) or buy a FIAT 500 and drink gallons of LavAzza coffee while driving it (sounds good to me). Put it in a bottle and enjoy.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2001.