2012 Fiat 500

Last Updated: Aug 16, 2011

What’s in the driveway? Cinquecento version due. BMW did it in 2007 by reimagining the mid-century Mini Cooper. In 2010, Chevy reconstituting the1969 Camaro. Now Fiat reboots the tiny 1957 car that blossomed into an Italian icon. Like today’s Mini and Camaro, the 2012 Fiat 500 – cin-que-chento in its native tongue – conjures the spirit, not the letter, of the original.

The 2012 Fiat 500 comes to America courtesy of Chrysler’s new European parentage. The 1957 500 was a mushroom-cap of a car with rear-wheel-drive and a rear-mounted, air-cooled two-cylinder engine. The modern incarnation by contrast is a fairly conventional subcompact. Offered as a two-door hatchback coupe and a charming roll-back-roof Cabrio, the 2012 500 has front-wheel drive, a 101-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and a twist-beam rear axle. At 2,363 pounds, it’s not particularly light for a subcompact, but it is notably small. The bean-like body measures just 11.6 feet bumper-to-bumper. That’s nearly two feet shorter than today’s subcompact-class norm.  

The example in the driveway is a 2012 Fiat 500 coupe in base trim, which Fiat calls Pop. It slots beneath the Sport and below top-line Lounge models. Our test car has the standard five-speed manual transmission and 185/55R15 tires on pretty 15-inch alloy wheels in place of the standard 15-inch steel rims. The sales sheet lists the exterior color as Rosso, which translates to a vibrant Isabella Rossellini-lips red. The interior is listed as Avorio, interpreted here as a buoyant sauce of ivory and red.

How much does it cost? Base price for the 2012 Fiat 500 Pop coupe is $16,000, including Fiat’s mandatory $500 destination fee. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, four-speaker CD audio with auxiliary input jack, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, and a trip computer that displays average fuel economy and miles to empty. The Cabrio version of the Pop starts at $20,000.

Enthusiasts will want the Sport model for its sharper suspension and steering calibrations, 16-inch tires, snarling exhaust, larger honeycomb grille, and various aero-body add-ons. Sports come only as coupes and start at $18,000. The Lounge ($20,000 for the coupe, $24,000 for the Cabrio) ladles on chrome inside and out, wraps the steering wheel in leather, upgrades to Bose audio, and installs a fixed glass panel in the coupe’s roof.

The 500 in the driveway has three options. The alloy wheels cost $500. The Bose Premium Audio Package (Bose Energy Efficiency Series sound system with six premium speakers and a subwoofer, plus satellite radio and theft alarm) costs $1,250. The third option is the Convenience Package (leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Fiat’s “Blue&Me” Bluetooth hands-free mobile-phone connectivity, and a USB iPod interface). It costs $500, but is tossed in free as part of a promotion. 

Total manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the 2012 Fiat 500 Pop coupe in the driveway is $17,750.

Is it worth it? Yes, though even at a reasonable $17,750 (the six-speed automatic transmission would make it $18,750), this car clearly is more lifestyle accessory than cogent subcompact value. Nothing wrong with that, really. The 2012 Fiat Pop is more practical but less sporty than the car with which it’ll most often be compared – the Mini Cooper. The more revealing bogie, however, is the Mazda 2. Cheaper, lighter, roomier and far more athletic than the 500, Mazda’s four-door hatchback drives with the vitality the Pop’s persona promises but fails to deliver.

What’s to like? Retro styling that’s cute with a purpose. This Fiat’s form follows its function. Thanks to a humped roofline and upright seating, it’s genuinely roomy for two in front and surprisingly accommodating for a medium-size couple in back. The seats are at the nexus of softness and support and are covered in a modern weave of durable fabric.

The 500’s true highlight might be its doll of a dashboard. Americans unfamiliar with the original won’t recognize its subtle nod to the past. All they’ll see is an instrument panel that’s playful and sensuous, yet ergonomic. The one in our car is a lacquered swath of body-colored plastic neatly inset with ivory-framed gauge and control clusters.

Upright seating, big windows, good sound insulation, and stability at speed create a feeling priceless in a car this size – the sensation that you’re not threatened by larger vehicles. Maneuverability is fantastic and ride quality is pretty good, though the Pop will bunny-hop if its rear tires simultaneously strike a lateral seam. Luggage space is tight, though the 500 does have a degree of hatchback practicality.

What does it need? Brio! You go in imaging a spontaneity that encourages darts through Roman traffic and come out wondering why the Pop coupe feels so logy. This is not one of those slow cars that are fun to drive fast – a beloved species defined by the Mazda 2.

The 500 Pop steps away from a stop nicely and it’ll stay with fast traffic if you’re willing to exercise the five-speed manual. But there’s no joy in the experience. The engine never sings or zings and the shift action is similarly lifeless. The throws are long, engagement is notchy. Movement into first gear is particularly sad and crude.

What handling pleasure the 500 Pop coupe delivers is due its size, not any suspension prowess. Special demerits to the steering, which is particularly slow and soggy at low speed. Fiat furnishes a “Sport” button on the dash that ostensibly quickens the Pop’s reflexes, but all it seems to do is make the steering harder to turn.  

Fuel economy ratings pleasant-enough 30/38 mpg city/highway, 33 mpg combined, although this 1.4-liter, which uses Fiat’s high-efficiency “MultiAir” intake system, is the rare subcompact engine that requires 91-octane premium gas.

What’s Fiat say? “The new Fiat 500 changes the rules of personal transportation and delivers a new sense of individual expression and opportunity.”

What do you say? I ordered al dente and got flaccido.

What’s next? Fiat could take a cue from Mini, where the lineup has expanded to include the elongated Cooper Clubman and the SUV-flavored Cooper Countryman. The original 500 family produced a station wagon, so there’s precedent for variations on the coupe and Cabrio. More immediate and more certain is the hot-rod Fiat 500 Abarth. Heir to past fast 500s, it’ll add a turbocharger to generate some 135 horsepower, lower the suspension, add 17-inch wheels, and slap on sporty exterior cues. Look for it sometime in 2012.

Vital statistics
2012 Fiat 500 Pop

  • Base price, including manufacturer’s $500 destination fee: $16,500
  • Price of test car including options: $17,750.
  • Size: 139.6 inches long, 90.6-inch wheelbase, 2,363-pound base curb weight
  • Engine: 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder; 5-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy: 30/38 mpg city/highway, 33 mpg combined (EPA ratings)
  • Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and powertrain; 3/30,000 scheduled maintenance

Automotive journalist Chuck Giametta has covered the auto industry for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide books and magazines, and as Managing Editor of Iguida.com. This test vehicle was provided by the manufacturer.