You hear the darndest things when you’re tooling around in a 2012 Fiat 500. “It’s a weird New Beetle !” Uh, nope. “It’s some kind of Mini !” Wrong again. But come to think of it, those two models are useful for explaining where the 500 fits in. The original New Beetle was basically a styling exercise, a Golf in a bubble costume, and the 500 isn’t quite like that. Sure, it’s related to the overseas-only Fiat Panda econobox, but it’s been engineered to provide a unique driving experience along with its unique shape. The Mini , on the other hand, is a purpose-built car that speaks to racing buffs and fashionistas alike – and the 500 isn’t quite like that, either. Yes, it’s got the fashion part covered between its retro-cool looks and Mini-like personalization options, but this Fiat is not a driver’s car, at least not until the turbocharged Abarth version bows next year.
So where does that leave the neither/nor 500? In an enviable position, actually, and here’s why: the New Beetle has been discontinued and is transitioning to a new design for 2012, the Mini has lost much of its novelty factor, and the Fiat starts at just $15,500, or thousands less than any other cute-mobile that matters.
Mind you, the 500 could use improvement. Still, we think there’s enough good stuff here to win over style-conscious shoppers on a budget. Shouldn’t be long before Americans know a 2012 Fiat 500 when they see one.
What's to Like
The 500 is an endearingly styled runabout with extensive customization available directly from Fiat – just like a Mini . The base price is attractive, and the optional Bose stereo is satisfying. We also like how the 500 remains quiet at speed, and how the Sport model’s suspension delivers that typically European combination of suppleness and athleticism.
What's Not to Like
The automatic transmission produces unbecoming vibrations when you’re stopped in “D,” and it takes a bite out of fuel economy, too. The manual transmission has a pleasant shifter, but the clutch and throttle aren’t on the same wavelength, making smooth shifting difficult. Rear headroom isn’t adult-friendly, and the front passenger seat is oddly elevated. We’d like to see higher-quality plastics on the dash and doors, too, as well as a telescoping steering wheel.
The front-wheel drive 500 has above-average ride comfort for such a diminutive car, and the cabin remains pleasantly quiet on the highway by segment standards. The chassis feels willing enough in corners, too, especially in the Sport model’s state of tune, but the gooey e...