The Truth About Cars » Fiat The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Apr 2014 14:58:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Fiat Smaller Jeep To Slot Beneath Renegade Thu, 06 Mar 2014 14:00:39 +0000 Jeep-Renegade-18

Though the Jeep Renegade already bowed at the 2014 Geneva Auto Show, the off-road brand has plans for not only a fullsize SUV similar to the discontinued Commander, but an A segment SUV slotted beneath the Renegade, as well.

Auto Express reports the A segment vehicle could possibly be underpinned by the next-generation Fiat 500, though would face greater engineering challenges than those faced by the Renegade — built upon Fiat’s “small-wide” archecture underpinning the upcoming 500X — to make it Rubicon-ready, as Jeep boss Mike Manley explained:

We couldn’t make an SUV off of “small wide” as you can’t get the ground clearance. It was completely changed by Jeep engineers so now it’s “small wide 4×4″ architecture.

The A segment Jeep could also aid in bringing the brand into compliance with increasing CO2 emissions standards, though the improvement drive — much like the vehicle itself — will be a long, hard road to hew:

There’s relentless pressure to reduce CO2 and there’s much more for us to do. We’re trying to stay away from complexity and improvements are slowly coming.

Meanwhile, Manley’s focus is toward the Grand Wagoneer, which will slot above the Grand Cherokee. The fullsize SUV will boast room for seven and “be bigger than the old Commander” made between 2006 and 2010.

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Fiat, Abarth Likely To Receive Mazda-Based Roadster Over Alfa Tue, 04 Mar 2014 19:19:50 +0000 2011_Mazda_MX-5_PRHT_--_04-28-2011

Long rumored to wear the Alfa Romeo badge, the next-generation Mazda MX-5 may instead don a Fiat or Abarth necklace in 2015 if Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne has the last word.

Automotive News reports sources close to the project stated product planners from Mazda and Fiat met recently to discuss a roadster based upon the MX-5. Fiat’s planners are looking for a way to maintain the supply partnership deal with the Japanese automaker, lest the break-up leave Fiat in the red through 2016, when they hope to return to the black in their native Europe.

As for why, Marchionne has proclaimed that no Alfa will be made outside of Italy so long as he is CEO, a statement reinforced as recently as the 2014 Detroit Auto Show; Marchionne plans to head FCA until 2017 at the earliest.

The so-called heir to the throne abdicated by the Fiat Duetto Spider made famous by the film “The Graduate,” the Italo-Japanese roadster may find a home with Fiat or Abarth, too underpowered be paired with Ferrari or Maserati, while Lancia retreats into its home market as a one-model brand by the end of 2014.

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Marichonne Still Seeking Location For New Minivans Fri, 14 Feb 2014 11:00:33 +0000 2013 Chrysler Town and Country

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV boss Sergio Marichonne, in talks with federal and provincial governments in Canada for loans to help prepare their factories in Windsor and Brampton, Ontario for new vehicle production, may come to a decision about moving forward with plans for where new minivans will be built by the end of March 2014.

Bloomberg reports that parent company Fiat is “not even close” to resolving those talks, with Marichonne hinting that he may take his business elsewhere, such as the United States or Mexico, if Canada won’t have them any longer:

“We’ve got to decide whether you want this or not. And if you do, I’ll be more than willing to stay. Global footprints are global footprints. I’m not using this as a threat, but there are some parts of the world that are desperately looking for capacity utilization, where infrastructure exists, is in place and is operational.”

The incentives sought for the new minivan production have been reported by Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail to be around $637 million, which would help Marichonne’s vision of an FCA capable of challenging larger automakers such as General Motors and Volkswagen.

Meanwhile, Canada is bolstering its Automotive Innovation Fund over the next two years by an additional $456 million (USD, or $500 million Canadian) over the $288 million (USD) already invested in six projects since 2008. The money is meant to attract all automakers in Canada beyond Chrysler, such as Ford, whose next-generation Edge will be built in Oakville, Ontario following a $640 million revamp by the automaker, and a $65 million investment by the Canadian government.

Though most of the Fiat-Chrysler merger has been worked out, Marichonne is doing all he can to remove distractions around the decision as to where new minivans will be constructed:

“We’re trying to remove all politics and noise around this issue. It’s a very simple investment call. We’re ready to go. We’re at the table. The car is ready. We’re ready to build minivans. Somewhere.”

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Moody’s Cuts Fiat’s Rating Down Due To Earnings Worries, Outlook Wed, 12 Feb 2014 16:18:06 +0000 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Citing weak results in 2013 and guidance challenges for 2014, investment ratings agency Moody’s has cut Fiat’s rating from B3a to B1, four notches below investment grade.

Automotive News reports that the rating was decided upon by the agency after placing the automaker under review for a possible downgrade back in the opening days of 2014 just after Fiat struck a deal to take full control of Chrysler for $4.35 billion. In turn, the B1 rating for Fiat means the automaker will have a harder time securing much-needed financing in order to right the ship for their loss-making European operations.

Aside from the aforementioned reasons cited for the downgrade, Moody’s lead analyst for Fiat Falk Frey added that

“We have downgraded Fiat’s ratings following its weaker-than-expected performance in fiscal year 2013 and our view that the company faces significant challenges in terms of achieving its outlook guidance for the current fiscal year.”

 “We are also concerned that Fiat may not be able to offset any further profitability deterioration in its Latin American operation through anticipated improvements in other regions and in its luxury and performance division,” 

Other factors in the downgrade include Fiat’s overreliance on the European market — still weak from the Great Recession — rising price pressures, a lack of major new models coming down the ramp in 2014, and overcapacity in Fiat’s home market.

Although Fiat and Chrysler merged not too long ago, Moody’s will keep the former duo’s ratings separate for the foreseeable future. The agency also said Fiat’s rating’s outlook overall has improved from negative to stable.

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One-Time Tax Gain Nets Chrysler $1.6 Billion In Q4 2013 Thu, 30 Jan 2014 11:00:04 +0000 FCA - Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The American half of the newly dubbed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a net income of $1.6 billion in Q4 2013, the majority of which came from a one-time tax gain of $962 million.

Automotive News reports that revenue in the fourth quarter for Chrysler advanced 24 percent to $21.4 billion, while total revenue for the outgoing year totaled $72.1 billion, up 10 percent from 2012′s $65.8 billion. Meanwhile, the total adjusted net income in 2013 for the brand came out to $1.8 billion, $2.8 billion unadjusted.

Within the next four to six weeks, Chrysler’s 37,200 unionized hourly employees will receive profit-sharing checks to the tune of $2,500, with an extra $1,000 split into two awards for quality and performance to be distributed in June and December, respectively. Some individual plants will also add to the pot based on their own quality and efficiency goals.

Regarding market share, Chrysler’s home market gained two-tenths of a percentage point to 11.6 percent in 2013 on the backs of 1.8 million units sold in the United States, an increase of 9 percent driven by the brand’s redesigned truck and SUV lines. Globally, 2.6 million vehicles in 2013 were delivered, including those made for parent company Fiat.

As far as cash on-hand and debt are concerned, Chrysler reported a nest egg of $13.3 billion with $12.3 billion in gross industrial debt; in 2012, the brand held $11.6 billion in cash and $12.6 billion in debt. The bottom line marks the first time Chrysler held more cash than debt since the Italo-American marriage was consummated before the U.S. federal government back in 2009.

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Turbos, Diesels Rule Top 10 Engine List in 2014 Fri, 13 Dec 2013 11:30:57 +0000 Audi 3.0 TFSI Engine

‘Tis the season for year-end Top 10 lists celebrating and lamenting all things in the world of life, and the automotive industry is no exception. Ward’s Automotive has announced its list of the 10 best engines for 2014, and it’s a turbodiesel-intercooled festival of power this year.

The winners on the 20th anniversary of this list are as follows:

  • 3.0L TFSI Supercharged DOHC V6 (Audi S5)
  • 3.0L Turbodiesel DOHC I6 (BMW 535d)
  • 3.0L Turbodiesel DOHC V6 (Ram 1500 EcoDiesel)
  • 83 kW Electric Motor (Fiat 500e)
  • 1.0L EcoBoost DOHC I3 (Ford Fiesta)
  • 2.0L Turbodiesel DOHC I4 (Chevrolet Cruze Diesel)
  • 6.2L OHV V8 (Chevrolet Corvette Stingray)
  • 3.5L SOHC V6 (Honda Accord)
  • 2.7L DOHC H6 boxer (Porsche Cayman)
  • 1.8L Turbocharged DOHC I4 (Volkswagen Jetta)

Of note, Ford’s three-pot EcoBoost marks the first time an automaker won a spot on the list with only three cylinders, while Fiat scores a first-time win with its 83 kW electric motor found in the 500e. On the other end, only two engines from last year’s list returned — Audi’s 3.0-liter TFSI and Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 — while six of the 10 are oil-burners, a first for Ward’s.

General Motors scored two wins this year for the first time since 2008 with the Cruze’s 2-liter turbodiesel I4 and the new Corvette Stingray’s 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8. Among trucks, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is the sole winner, based on the strength of its 3-liter turbodiesel stump-puller.

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Ram to ProMaster the City in Late 2014 Tue, 03 Dec 2013 15:57:34 +0000 Fiat Doblo

On the heels of “the biggest thing to happen in the commercial world” that is the Ram ProMaster — whose page links back to our review, of course — the Italo-American truck division has announced the introduction of the ProMaster City in late 2014.

The ProMaster City is expected to go up against the Ford Transit Connect and the Nissan NV200/Chevrolet City Express in the battle for the hearts and wallets of many a florist, caterer and cable installer.

Much like how the Fiat Ducato provided the framework for the ProMaster, the Fiat Doblo will provide the foundation for the ProMaster City as it becomes an Americanized delivery machine. The treatment will include adding more transmission/engine combos, an automatic transmission as an option, and slight changes to the design to appeal to the North American market.

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Fiat Passes on Milano Auto Show Mon, 18 Nov 2013 14:45:18 +0000 Fiat Strada Adventure

If you were hoping to celebrate an early Christmas in Milan with Signore Marchionne next year, you’re out of luck: Fiat has declined an invitation to show at the 2014 Milano Auto Show in light of the weakened local market.

The Italian half of the Italo-American mashup stated that the shows in Paris, Frankfurt and Geneva are enough for all automakers to show off their latest and greatest to the masses and the press alike, and that current economic conditions may not be able to support another auto show, especially one in a market that took only 1.3 million cars out of the showroom in 2013 after a peak of 2.5 million units sold back in 2007.

In response, Chairman Alfredo Cazzola of Promotor, the production company responsible for organizing next year’s show, had this to say to the Italian daily La Repubblica:

Fiat’s business is to build cars, not to organize shows.

Cazzola also said that Fiat would change its mind once they’ve seen what his Promotor has in store for Milan. Previously, Promotor were responsible for the Bologna Auto Show until its reorganization as the Milano Auto Show, where 133 exhibitors displayed their wares in 2012. In contrast, this year’s show in Frankfort held 1,000 under their tent.

As for 2013, the 38th iteration of the Bologna Auto Show was cancelled due to a lack of exhibitors.

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Review: 2014 Fiat 500L (With Video) Fri, 06 Sep 2013 21:15:12 +0000 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-008

I have to admit, I’m a fan of the Fiat 500. Yes, I know it’s just a Fiat Panda with bubbly sheetmetal. Yes I know it’s a little peculiar. Yes I know it’s trying to ride on MINI success. It doesn’t matter, the wee Fiat makes me grin every time I drive one. Whether it’s the slow-as-dirt standard 500, the ludicrously loud Abarth, the almost-convertible 500c or the totally impractical 500e, the Cinquecento knows how to brighten my day. I was therefore excited when Fiat announced the 500′s success would spawn a four door stable-mate for 2014.  Is the 500L 40% more smiles for 20% more cash?

Click here to view the embedded video.


When I first saw the 500L at the Chicago Auto Show, I tried to keep an open mind about the exterior styling. The perfectly orchestrated lighting, booth babes and a free cappuccino mug certainly helped distract from the car’s lines. Once I had the super-sized 500 parked in the grocery store parking lot under the harsh California sun, my opinion was set. Something is wrong with the 500L.

2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

On the face of things, a larger 500 sounds like a great idea, I love the way the new 500 looks. The problem is: the 500L is not a stretched 500. Instead, the L is an entirely different car riding on a completely unrelated architecture co-designed by Fiat and Opel. The result is a 500 that got stung by a bee, not a 500 Xeroxed with the enlarge setting at 140%. I don’t think the 500L is hideous, it’s just awkward. Like a slightly overweight person in skinny jeans and a tube top.

If you want a 500L that looks slightly more rugged, the Trekking model gets a tweaked bumper cover featuring more black plastic. Apparently black plastic tells others you’re an outdoor sports person. The side profile is dominated by slab sides and an unusual A and B pillar location. If you can’t tell from the picture above, check out the one below. The A pillar and B pillar are up by the dashboard allowing the windshield to be pushed out towards the front of the car, improving interior room but creating a style that is far from common in America. If I might proffer an opinion: I think going for a 1950′s wrap-around-bubble windshield would have been more unique and more harmonious. Out back the 500′s raked hatchback style is out, replaced by a more practical vertical hatch. I realize that style is subjective so, so I’ll end this section by soliciting your opinion in the comment section. Ready? Set. Flame!

2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


While the funky styling on the outside turned my nose up, the Euro-funk on the inside whet my appetite in a strange sort of way. (Kind of like admitting you eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and aren’t pregnant.) Cars in America are so cookie-cutter these days with every car company pulling from the same pool of suppliers are parts that the 500L stands out. In addition to switch gear you won’t find in a Ford or Toyota, the overall style is refreshingly different. Our 500L Lounge tester had the optional pleather dash in a faux-marble pattern that is on the one hand unique and the other a little strange. From the seat design to the parking brake handle and the steering wheel to the air vents, the 500L is just a little different. If you like breaking from the herd, this interior is for you.

Front seat comfort was acceptable for a car in the 500L’s price range ($19,100-$27,895) but could have been better. Part of this is because our Lounge model was a pre-production vehicle and did not have the four-way power lumbar support that is normally standard on Lounge models and optional on Easy and Trekking. I was unable to locate a 500L with the optional lumbar support so keep that in mind. Power seats are not available at any price and the manual adjustment range of motion is more limited than I had expected, but Fiat did go the extra mile and give the same height adjustment levers to the front passenger seat. The 500L’s chunky leather wrapped steering wheel and well placed controls have a premium feel to them you don’t normally find in this price range.

2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L.Dykes

Logically the 500L exists to give 500 shoppers an alternative that can seat 5 and schlep more widgets. Indeed, the rear bench has three belts, is split 60/40, adjusted fore/aft and folded/flipped forward to increase cargo capacity from 21 cubes to 64 cubes. (The front passenger seat also folds flat.) Unfortunately our model was had the panoramic sunroof, a trendy $950 option. Why is that unfortunate? Two reasons. The sunroof drops the ceiling low enough that my head brushed the ceiling and I’m only 6-feet tall. The other problem is the perforated cloth sunshade. It sieves the light rather than blocking it. This didn’t seem like a problem at first, but on a 98 degree day having my head baking and my face freezing lead to a headache that wouldn’t have happened in anything other than a convertible. Except in a convertible I could have put the lid back on. Phoenix shoppers beware. It is now that I should point out I had a passenger who thought this was the best feature ever. I think her head has been in the sun too long.

Americans love cupholders because we love fast food as much as we love fast cars. This is one cultural difference that even European car companies that have been in America for decades continue to get wrong. (I’m lookin’ at you BMW.) If you’re considering a 500L as a family car, there’s a serious deficiency you should know about: the 500L has three cup holders. That’s two less than the car’s occupancy, one less than the American bare-minimum standard and three less than ideal. Yes, the cup holder that slides out of the rear armrest is sturdy. Yes it can handle a 42oz McCokePepsiDew from the drive-thru. But there is only one. Fiat kindly includes a bottle holder in each of the 500L’s doors but tells you to never put a drink without a screw cap in them. Holding your Big Gulp between your knees may be acceptable in Italy, but in suburban America it is grounds for mutiny. Trust me, I found out the hard way.

 2014 Fiat 500L


The 500L is the first Fiat to use Chrysler’s uConnect Infotainment system. (Yes, I am discounting the re-badged Fiat and Lancia models.) Because the 8-inch system found in most Chrysler vehicles wouldn’t fit the dash, a 5-inch system is used in base models while most seem to get the 6.5-inch unit. Both systems carry the uConnect name but the 5-inch system runs an embedded version of Microsoft Windows ala MyFord Touch and the 6.5-inch system runs on the same QNX operating system as other uConnect systems (and Blackberry phones.)

Despite running a different OS, the 5-inch system looks and feels very similar to the other uConnect devices and it follows Chrysler and Fiat’s new direction in infotainment: no standard CD player. Like the RAM trucks and new Jeeps, you can pay $190 for an optical drive but it will be located somewhere other than in the dash. Fiat has said the 5-inch system can also be upgraded to include GPS navigation but details remain sketchy.  If you’ve seen the 8-inch system, you’ll be right at home with the 6.5-inch version. I assumed initially that the reduced screen real estate would be an issue for my inner-nerd, but I was mistaken. The reason is that Fiat moved the permanent on-screen button bank to a row of physical buttons below the screen making the useable area almost as large as its bigger brother. If you want the infotainment deep dive, check out the video. I was unable to discern a difference between the standard 6 speaker system on the 500L Pop and the “premium” system found on the other models. I did however find the 6-speaker Beats branded system to have a strange balance with exaggerated bass and muted mid range.

2014 Fiat 500L Engine, Fiat Multi-Air, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


In many world markets, popping the hood of the 500L will reveal a 0.9L two-cylinder engine good for 79 ponies. Clearly this would have taken “Euro-funky” to a level Americans would never accept. In an interesting twist, Fiat skipped over their 1.4L 135HP turbo and gave the 500L some Abarth love the form of their 160 horsepower 1.4L MultiAir turbo. In a move that may make Abarth owners feel left out, Fiat tweaked the small four again, bumping torque from 170 ft-lbs to 184. Thanks to the MultiAir system, the turbo’s 18psi (maximum) of boost can still be enjoyed with 87 octane.

Further upsetting Abarth owners is the fact that this engine is mated to a 6-speed manual or a quick-shifting 6-speed dual clutch transmission. Unlike most of the dual-clutch units out there, Fiat’s “Euro Twin Clutch” transmission uses dry clutches rather than wet clutches as seen in VW’s original 6-speed DSG. Cost and complexity are the main reasons for the dry clutches, however shift quality is not quite up to VW’s standards as a result. Another interesting side effect of the dry clutches is driving at slow speeds, especially on sloping roads, can heat up the clutch pack enough you can smell it.

2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Cargo Area, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Based on the 500L’s proportions you might be temped to think it handles like a giant marshmallow. You’d be wrong. At 3,200lbs (with the dual-clutch) the 500L is [relatively] light and thanks to the chassis stamping, the center of gravity is low. Toss in some Italian engineering and the optional 225/45R17 tires (205/55R16s are standard on all models except Trekking) and the 500L is surprisingly agile on the road. I spent a few hours behind the wheel of the base Pop model with the 6-speed manual and the 205-width rubber and came away fairly impressed even in stripper form. The 500L with the optional rubber easily out-grips the Buick Encore and Kia Soul, but if corner carving in your almost-crossover is your style, the Countryman has higher limits and better feel.

Fiat uses a modern electric power steering system in the 500L so that means we can skip steering feel for other topics at hand. Tossing the 500L into corners produces less body roll than you might imagine and the chassis is tuned to the stiffer side of this segment. The 500L’s cabin is considerably quieter than the Soul or the Countryman but not as quiet as Buick’s crossover.

2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Headlamps, Piicture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The 6-speed manual transmission has an excellent feel, moderately long throws and a linear, but slightly spongy clutch. The shifter feel is reminiscent of the smaller 500 Abarth except the 500L gains an all important 6th gear and looes the incessant drone designed into the Abarth’s exhaust. The extra cog helps the 500L achieve a very respectable 25/33/28 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) EPA score which is three city and one highway MPG lower than the Abarth. Adding the dual clutch tranny drops the city and combined number by one MPG to 24/33/27. In a week of mixed driving and hill climbing I averaged an impressive 28.9MPG, several shy of the Buick Encore but 4MPG ahead of the Mini Countryman S.

Opinions on Fiat’s dual-clutch transmission are likely to be as mixed as the exterior design. The 6-speed unit has all the benefits and flaws of every other dual clutch robotic manual on the market. Because this is a manual transmission at heart, there is no torque converter. If you understand what’s going on inside the transmission, the behavior makes sense. If you’re passengers aren’t “car people” they will ask: “dude, what’s wrong with your car?” The reason is: the 500L drives like a someone driving a manual. Takes offs have a hint of clutch slip and then an engagement point, this is especially obvious in slow driving where the car is almost constantly slipping the clutch. The 500L gets hill hold assist, but if the incline is shallow, you’re pointing down hill, or you wait too long to press the accelerator, the 500L will roll. On the up side, the transmission’s shifts are fast and crisp and the Fiat unit is just as eager to downshift as it is to up-shift making it a decent companion on mountain roads.

2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Pricing & Competition

Ah, the bugaboo of every review. Any car can seem like a slam dunk in a vacuum (I’m thinking LS 600hL) but pricing makes the deal. With a spread from $19,100 to $27,895 (without destination), the 500L’s pricing spread isn’t out of the ordinary, but what else competes with the super-sized Fiat? I suppose you could call the $14,700-$23,400 Kia Soul competition, but are they really the same thing? It may not handle as well, be as quiet on the inside or get the same fuel economy as the 500L, but it’s about $4,000 cheaper. That’s a significant difference.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the Buick Encore and Mini Countryman Cooper S. Both the Buick and the Mini seem like better competition thanks to their turbocharged engines, mini SUV looks and more premium brand image. The Buick and Mini both have AWD options which is something to keep in mind, but the majority of their sales are FWD so the comparison is valid.  The Buick is over $3,000 more expensive and not as powerful, but it does deliver at least $3,000 worth of interior refinements in my opinion. The Mini on the other hand fails the value proposition costing $8,000-$9,000 more than the Fiat depending on the options. I’d like to say the Mini makes up for the difference, but I’d be lying. Yes the Mini does have better road manners and I like their version of BMW’s iDrive, but the difference isn’t worth the price especially when Mini continues to use some crazy cheap plastics in their cabins.

The 500L is certainly 40% more Fiat for 20% more cash, but the size increase exacts a 50% toll on the cuteness factor and a 20% reduction in fun. Once that math is done, you’re left with the Kia being cheaper, the Encore doing almost everything better and the Mini still selling on brand but delivering little else. The 500L handles well, is reasonably priced, gets good fuel economy and has the largest cargo hold of this group. Paired with a large helping of Euro-funk, I can see why someone would want to own one, I’m just not that person. If you’re torn between the 500 and 500L, get the 500 and rent a four-door when you need one. If you need four-doors all the time, the 500L is unquestionably a better buy than the Mini Countryman, and in many ways a better vehicle as well, but the Kia Soul is a better value and the Buick Encore is just a better car. I can’t believe I said that about a Buick. Someone help me find my wheelchair, I know I left it here before that whippersnapper came in the room.

Hit it or Quit it?

Hit it

  • I know I’m the only one, but I love a dual-clutch transmission.
  • The baby uConnect system hasn’t lost what makes the 8-inch unit great.
  • Larger cargo hold than Encore and Countryman.

Quit it

  • Awkward looks.
  • Distinct cup-holder shortage in the rear.
  • The Kia Soul is a better value.

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 3.47 Seconds

0-60: 8.34 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 16.72 Seconds @ 85.5 MPH

Average Observed Fuel Economy: 28.9 MPG over 460 miles

2014 Fiat 500L Engine, Fiat Multi-Air, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Engine-001 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-001 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-003 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-004 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Headlamps, Piicture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-006 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-008 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-009 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-010 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-011 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Fiat 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-001 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-002 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-003 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-004 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-005 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L.Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-008 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-009 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-010 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Cargo Area, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes ]]> 114
Review: 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van (Video) Tue, 16 Jul 2013 22:35:10 +0000  2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Before we dive in, let’s get one thing straight. This is not, I repeat NOT a review of the 2014 RAM ProMaster cargo van. Instead I managed to get my hands on a Euro spec Fiat Ducato van for a few days. The Ducato is the basis for the ProMaster, but the ProMaster is more than just a Fiat with a RAM on it. Fiat’s Americanized cargo van might just be the biggest shakeup to the domestic commercial vehicle segment in our lifetime. Why? Front wheel drive, that’s why. Intrigued?


Click here to view the embedded video.

The American commercial market is very different from most of the world. In America, our vans are based on pickup trucks, usually a generation (or two or three) behind the consumer product. The benefit is a stable platform that’s been tested. The downsides are: a large and heavy ladder frame undercarriage causing a high center of gravity, thirsty V8 engines, old 4-speed automatics, engines located under a “dog house” between the front seats, poor fuel economy and a general lack of innovation. Even the newcomer to this segment, the Nissan NV, follows the same formula with a chassis and drivetrain very loosely based on the Titan.

In Europe things are different. Even if manufacturers had large trucks to base vans on, fuel economy is a huge deal. Because of this Europe is a sea of large unibody vans sporting small diesel engines, manual transmissions and [comparatively] aerodynamic shapes. How small? The Ford Transit sports a 100HP 2.2L diesel and a 6-speed manual. In America the only diesel cargo van on sale at the moment is the Chevy Express with a massive 6.6L V8 engine.

2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Form follows function. Fiat boasts the squarest, boxiest cargo area on the market, not a claim you would hear at a “normal” press conference. Up front the awkward nose is a nod to practicality. Because the Ducato is front-wheel-drive, Fiat located the transverse engines under the hood, not between the seats like you see in GM and Ford vans. Crash structures and radiators are located in the black plastic section of the nose while headlamps are positioned above the usual fender-bender zone. Fiat claims the three-piece front bumper cover reduces minor accident repair costs.

As with other entries, glass is optional. Base vans come with a windshield and two front windows. If you pay, you can get rear barn-doors with glass and partially or fully-glazed van sides. Somewhat unique is an optional driver’s side sliding door. Much like the Mercedes Sprinter and Nissan NV cargo vans, rear doors swing nearly 270 degrees and lock in place almost parallel to the side of the van.

2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Three Seat Van, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


I have been told some of the Ducato’s unique seat options will make it across the Atlantic. The standard driver’s seat is height-adjustable with lumbar support. There is also an optional suspension seat (think city-bus) and three-abreast seating. Our Euro model was distinctly lacking in the cupholder department, an omission that will be remedied for America.

Starting several inches lower than the passenger cab of the Ducato is the cargo area. Yes, several inches lower. That’s because the gas tank and battery are under the passenger compartment floor. Despite this the cab is about the same height as an Express or E-150.

The load floor is 7 inches closer to the ground than any American van. That’s what FWD does for you. Without the driveshaft to worry about, Fiat tucks the suspension and exhaust close to the load rails in the chassis making the floor of the Ducato much “thinner” than the competition. Don’t let that fool you, the Ducato’s load capacity is 3,472lbs, which positions it between the Chevrolet Express 2500′s 3,095lb capacity and the 3500′s 4,394lb maximum payload. When the Ducato becomes a naturalized American, payload increases and ranges from 3,922-4,417 lbs in the regular van configuration to 5,189 in the chassis cab and cut-away models.

2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Cargo Hold, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Cargo Hauling

Based on pickups, American vans are branded 1500, 2500 and 3500. In Europe these naming conventions don’t exist. When purchasing a Ducato, you first decide if you want a cargo box or if you want a chassis cab or cut away. Huh? How does that work in a unibody van? Easy. Unibody is becoming a generic descriptor and in the purest sense of the word the Ducato is not a true unibody vehicle. Instead it’s more of a hybrid having fully-boxed steel load rails. When the cargo box is put on top, the two are welded together to increase strength, but the Ducato doesn’t need the body to haul cargo. Next you select between three wheelbases and two roof heights. If you choose the longest wheelbase you have the option to extend the body an extra 14 inches. Each wheelbase has a range of payloads which you can select somewhat independently of drivetrains.

Because Fiat didn’t have a parts bin to raid for axles and chassis components, the Ducato was designed from the ground up to maximize cargo room. That meant pushing the rear wheels out as far as possible giving the Ducato 4-6 inches more room between the wheel wells than the competition. Fiat combined the low load floor with a standard cargo box that is nearly a foot taller inside than GM or Ford while maintaining roughly the same exterior dimensions. Opt for the factory high roof and you get 72 inches of floor-to-ceiling height. Because the high-roof version starts 7-inches closer to the ground, the Ducato is 7 inches shorter overall than the high-roof NV. This made the difference between fitting through a drive-thru and parking and walking in for my burger. Yes, I am that lazy.

The picture above shows the optional bulkhead between cargo and passenger compartments. If that was not in place, you would see the passenger area is 7 inches higher than the cargo area making it unlikely that liquids from your cargo would slosh around your feet. When in place, the bulkhead allows the cabin A/C to more effectively cool the driver, makes for a quieter ride and keeps your cargo from smacking your head. Speaking of liquids, the Ducato sports a double-sealed load floor to prevent liquids from rusting the welds from the inside out, a common problem with the Mercedes Sprinter. If you’re counting cubes, the Ducato shifts between 283 and 530 depending on the body. The E-Series ranges from 237 cubes to 278 while Nissan’s NV swallows 234 to 323.

180 MultiJet EngineDrivetrain

In most countries the Ducato sports an all-diesel, all-Iveco engine lineup ranging from a 2.3L 110 HP four-cylinder to the 3.0L 177 HP four-cylinder we will be getting in America in the ProMaster. (Iveco is Fiat’s commercial engine subsidiary.) Hauling is more about torque than HP and that’s where these oil burners shine. The base 2.3L engine delivers 221 lb-ft and the 3.0L engine cranks out a GM 4.8L V8 matching 295 lb-ft. Some markets have an optional Iveco compressed natural gas mill, but I’m not holding my breath for an American version. Exclusive to the US/Canadian market will be the 3.6L Pentastar V6 tuned to 280 HP and 260 lb-ft of twist.

Motivating 7,000-10,000lbs with 177 ponies may sound like a disaster, but you should remember that horsepower wars are a recent affectation and 295 lb-ft is enough to motivate the Ducato without a problem. The base engine sends that power to the ground via a 6-speed manual transmission. Yes, manual. No, I don’t think that’s a good idea for American commercial drivers because I have seen them drive. Thankfully Fiat offers an “automatic robotised gearbox” on the other diesel engines and that’s the only transmission on the American-bound diesel.

What is a “robotised” gearbox? This is not an automatic transmission. This is not a dual clutch gearbox and it is NOT an automatic transmission with a “manual mode”, it is a manual transmission with an automatic mode. You won’t find any planetary gears or a torque converter.  Instead you’ll find dog clutches, syncromesh and shafts. The reason is simple: torque converters and planetary gearsets are less efficient. Fear not, the computer controls the clutch and the shifting. Anecdotal evidence from a friend in the UK that runs a commercial repair garage indicates you should expect at least 100,000 miles out of the clutch even with heavy loads since the computer is more skilled at slipping the friction material than you are. Worried? The ProMaster’s gasoline V6 will have a regular old automatic with a torque converter and planetary gearsets if you can’t handle change.

2013 Fiat Ducato, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


I’m no stranger to commercial vehicles. I do fleet consulting on the side and I built my own home with my own two hands. Since I’m also a cheap bastard, everything that is my home arrived in a truck, van or trailer that I drove up and over a 2,200ft mountain pass, on gravel roads, in home improvement parking lots and unloaded myself before carrying said items down the hill to the building site. Some day if this construction nightmare is ever complete, I may write about it. What does this have to do with the Ducato? Easy, I had promised some friends we would have a patio party by the end of July. Except I didn’t have a patio yet. To complete the job I needed 26,400lbs of pavers and 22,000lbs of retaining wall blocks. A perfect test for the Ducato. The cheapest way to get the items was to pick them up at the store. To get the quantity I needed, I had to visit every location from Daly City to Watsonville multiple times.

Basalite puts pavers and wall products on 48×40 pallets, the most common size in North America, and loads them to between 3,000 and 3,3300lbs. Loading pallets in the Ducato was a breeze thanks to a generous 56-inches between the rear wheel wells, four more than the Ford. The forklift operators obviously need this extra width because despite being told repeatedly to move the pallet left or right they would invariably place it one millimeter from a wheel well. If you are brave enough, you can also insert a standard 48×48 pallet in the side door of the Ducato, although I don’t recommend it because the opening is 49 inches wide and I don’t trust forklift drivers that much. Still, it is possible which is more than can be said of the GM/Ford vans.

2013 Fiat Ducato, UP Connected button, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

After overloading the Ducato with 4,200lbs of cargo (something that is supposedly within the design specs of the ProMaster) I noticed the curious button in the picture above. I incorrectly assumed that pressing the button would drill into the earth to provide a stable platform for catapulting the load overhead. What the “UP Connected” button actually does is tell the robotic manual you have something heavy in the back. This causes the transmission to hold lower gears longer, downshift automatically when going downhill (engine braking) and most importantly, severely delay upshifts from 1 to 2. Why is that critical? Let’s look at the overall 1st and 2nd gear ratios on the MT40 robotic manual. 1st: 19:1 2nd: 10.7:1 (including the final drive ratio of 4.56:1.) 19:1 is a very low first gear (the ProMaster’s gasoline and automatic transmission will be around 15:1 in first) which means the Ducato had no problems starting on steep inclines despite having to slip the clutch. That was a relief because I would be lying if I didn’t say I was worried. However, there were a few problems.

The van we got our hands on did not have “hill hold assist” so you start rolling back when you lift off the brake. Again, this is a manual transmission, so it behaves just like one. This problem was easily remedied by using two feet and holding the brake gently while taking off. The second problem was less of a problem than I assumed it would be. With 9,000lbs of total vehicle weight climbing up a steep gravel road, I had expected the FWD Ducato to have traction issues. Despite this model lacking the electronic locking front differential offered in Europe, the FWD Fiat scrabbled its way up the hill with less drama than I feared given its Euro-spec crazy-small 215/70R15 tires. The third problem, and the only one that truly annoyed is caused by the huge delta between first and second gears and the leisurely rate at which the transmission shifts. Going up a steep incline, as the engine approached 3,500 RPM in 1st gear (about 15MPH), the transmission would shift into neutral halting forward progress. At this point one of two things would happen. Either the Ducato would slow down rapidly enough for the transmission to change its mind and re-engage first gear, OR it would engage second gear briefly, decide 10:1 wasn’t really low enough, then shift back to first. The only remedy is to anticipate the incline, command the gear manually and keep an eye on the tach to be sure you don’t hit 4,500RPM (about 25MPH). If you do, the transmission will shift into 2nd rather than let you hang out at a “high” RPM. Also, keep in mind that manual transmissions don’t have “Park” and this robotic unit is no different. Fiat does not program the unit to shift into any gear when stopped either, making that parking brake essential.

2013 Fiat Ducato Instrument Cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

So we have a ginormous Euro van with a funky transmission. What’s the benefit? If you can get past the transmission, the diesel is a gem. The Ducato had no problems maintaining highway speeds on mountain roadways with a full payload. The four-cylinder diesel is also quieter and more refined than you might expect and the fuel economy is nothing short of amazing. Over 850 miles the Ducato averaged 29.6 imperial MPG which translates to 24.6 US MPG. Keep in mind the Ducato had 3,300lbs of cargo in the back and the van climbed from sea-level to 2,200 feet every trip. These are impressive numbers. Based on local gasoline and diesel prices of 3.99 and 4.10 per gallon respectively, the pay back time for the diesel’s expected $4,000 premium would be just over 2 years at 20,000 miles a year. That’s without factoring in the increased reliability of a diesel engine, longer transmission fluid lifetime in the robotic unit and lengthy engine oil replacement cycles.

Although not normally a consideration with a cargo van, the Ducato the most civilized ride in this segment. It’s also the easiest to parallel park thanks to an incredibly small 36.3-foot turning circle in the short wheelbase model, smaller than many mid-size sedans. The largest Ducato carries nearly twice the cargo as Chevy’s extended express while being more maneuverable with a 46.8 foot turning circle compared to the 54.6 for the Express. That’s the difference between making a U-turn or a 3-point turn downtown.

Driving the Ducato gave us the best insight so far into the upcoming ProMaster, a van that redefines American cargo hauling. Whether or not the ProMaster will be a success remains to be seen. In this notoriously stagnant market, the Ducato’s (and therefore the ProMaster) biggest feature is that robotic manual and the resulting fuel economy. But will fleet buyers accept the inherent compromises? Although Ford has delayed the highly anticipated T-Series, we can’t discount its impact on this segment. Part of that has to do with Ford’s sales domination, but plenty has to do with the T-Series itself. With a broader range of options, a RWD chassis that fleet buyers are comfortable with, a twin-turbo V6 and their 3.2L diesel 5-cylinder diesel the T-Series covers all the Ducato’s bases except for that low load floor and possibly fuel economy. Even so the Ducato is an interesting and attractive alternative, especially to those old GM vans. Be sure to check back with us in a few months when we get our hands on the 2014 ProMaster for comparison.


2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Three Seat Van, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-002 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-003 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Cargo Hold, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-006 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-007 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-008 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-009 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-010

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Review: 2013 Fiat 500e Electric (Video) Sat, 22 Jun 2013 16:45:32 +0000 2013 Fiat 500e Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Despite being an incredibly small part of the US market share, you don’t have to look far in California’s urban areas to find a car with a plug. The reason for that is California’s controversial EV mandate. California wants 1.4 million EVs and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2025. Up till recently, California’s regulations seemed like a pie-in-the-sky dream with a far-away deadline. That changed last year when CARB (California Air Resources Board) mandated (in a nutshell) a combined 7,500 zero-emission vehicles be sold between 2012 and 2014 by the large auto makers in the state. (Credits and trades are not included in that number.) Come 2018, smaller companies like Volvo, Subaru and Jaguar will have to embrace plug-love and at the same time, most of the silly green credits go out the window. By 2025, if my home state has its way, 15% of new cars will be an EV. In California. This brings us to the little orange 500 Fiat lent us for a week. Because everyone is getting into the EV game, this will be our first EV review where we make no mention of living with an EV, range anxiety or charging station availability. If you want to know about that, click over to our 7-part saga “Living with an EV for a week.”


Click here to view the embedded video.


Fiat’s pint-sized car started its life as a Fiat Panda, a popular European car that is constantly bashed on Top Gear. (The Panda isn’t a bad little car, but it looks like something the soviet government would have cooked up.) The 500 however is modern Italian chic from bumper to bumper. While the Nuova 500 (as the Italians call it to distinguish it from the original) isn’t as handsome as the original “new” Mini, it is a plucky little car that makes people smile and point as you drive by. It could have been the $500 optional bright orange paint, but the 500e received more points and waves from passers by than a BMW M6 drop-top or a $120,000 Jaguar.

How small is a 500? We’re talking 139 inches long and 64 inches wide. That’s 7.0 inches shorter and 2 inches narrower than the Mini and a whopping three feet shorter than a Civic and 5 inches narrower than the compact Honda.

For EV duty, Fiat stuck with the 500′s winning formula. The EV gets a tweaked front and rear bumper for improved aerodynamics, wheels that have very little open space to reduce drag and a spoiler designed to do the same. Together the aero improvement reduce drag by 13% over a gasoline Italian. Fiat dropped the charging connector behind the fuel filler door and kept EV badging to an absolute minimum. The 500e’s discrete personality (you know, aside from the orange paint) didn’t go unnoticed by me or by my weekly troupe of lunch guests. Oddly enough when I first drove a 500 gasoline version two years ago everyone I met asked me if it was Electric. Now that there is a 500 electric, nobody thought about asking if it was an EV.

2013 Fiat 500e Interior, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


EV variants of “normal” cars suffer from the same problem as high-performance variants: the common parts bin. The 500′s plastics and trim parts are entirely appropriate in a $16,000 500 Pop edition but a gasoline vehicle starting at $31,800 would normally be expected to have nicer bits. But this isn’t a gasoline car so we should talk actual competition before we go much further.

The gas 500 finds itself head-to-head with the likes of the Mni Copper, Scion iQ and Smart, the $31,800 500e swims in a larger and more varied pond. We have the $28,800 Leaf, $29,135 i-MiEV, $39,200 Focus Electric, $26,685 Spark EV, as well as the lease-only Fit EV, the expensive crossover RAV4 EV, the crop of “almost EV” plug in hybrids and, yes, even the Model S. (The Mini E is not available for sale yet and Think! went belly-up.)

With the competition now in mind we can assess the interior more honestly. As a dedicated EV, the Leaf was built to a weight so plastics are hard and thin. Ditto the Volt and i-MiEV. The C-MAX and RAV 4, being based off slightly more expensive gasoline vehicles have more luxurious interior plastics. Meanwhile the 500 has plenty of hard plastics but Fiat cast them in stylish shapes that are sure to lure PT Cruiser, HHR and Mini buyers. The only real change to the 500′s interior was the installation of shift buttons where the traditional shifter used to live. I think the change was fine but I wish Fiat had gone further and just removed that portion of the dash so you’d have more knee-room.

EV efficiency is driven as much by environmental concerns as the reality that range is limited and charging times are long. Weight the enemy of efficiency so you won’t find heavy items like cushy seats, adjustable lumbar support or power adjusting mechanisms. The 500e’s thrones aren’t uncomfortable, but they lack the range of adjustibility you find in an average mid-sized sedan. Thanks t0 the 500′s upright profile, the rear seats are surprisingly easy to get into and provide enough headroom for a pair of 6-foot tall adults. On the down side, the battery pack intrudes making the footwells four-inches shallower than the regular 500. (Check out the video for more.) The EV conversion doesn’t really shrink the cargo area as much as it converts it. The 500e has a flip-up cargo floor that reveals a can of fix-a-flat and the 120V “emergency” charging cable which suck up about six-inches of cargo load floor.
2013 Fiat 500e LCD Instrument Cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Infotainment & Gadgets

The 500 may seem fresh to Americans since it’s only been sold here for three years. Unfortunately for gadget lovers, the 500 is really a 6 year old car launched in 2007. That means that the gadgets on offer were already ageing when “our” 500 hit dealers in 2010.  That means you won’t find any snazzy touchscreen LCDs, self parking doodads or Ford SYNC aping voice commands. To correct this deficiency, 500es sold in the USA come standard with Fiat’s customized Tom-Tom nav system that “docks” into a dedicated hole in the dashboard. For some reason our Canadian brothers and sisters (who are able to buy the 500e) don’t get standard nav-love but Fiat will sell you one for some extra loonies.

Helping counter the 500e’s price tag, Fiat throws in the up-level Alpine sound system from the gasoline model with Bluetooth speaker phone integration and a USB/iPod interface. EV buyers also get a snazzy 7-inch LCD gauge cluster. The disco-dash offers slick graphics but limited customization in this generation. Instead of reworking the car’s controls for the 500e, the LCD is still controlled via the complicated combination of steering wheel buttons, a button on the wiper stalk and three buttons on the dash. Confused? Check out the video to see what they all do.

2013 Fiat 500e Electric Motor, Drivetrain, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Drivetrain & Drive

In place of the gasoline engine sits a 111HP/147lb-ft three-phase AC synchronous motor. That’s a 9HP and 49lb-ft improvement over the 1.4L four-cylinder gasoline engine. Power is stored in a 624lb, 24kWh battery pack that’s liquid cooled and heated that is located mostly under the 500′s Italian body. Power gets to the front wheels via a single speed transaxle. Transaxle is perhaps not the best word to use here since the 500e doesn’t have a transmission in the traditional sense; its more of a reduction gear and differential combination. No reverse gear is needed because the motor can spin backwards just as easily as it can forwards.

Charging is handled by an on-board 6.6kW charger which will take the pack from zero to 100% in just under four hours if you have access to a 240V level 2 charger. 120V charging will take 22 hours, a notable improvement over some EVs thanks to the small size of the 500′s battery. Range clocks in at 80-100 miles depending on how you drive and my range numbers landed in the middle at 90. Thanks to an efficient drivetrain and the 6.6kW charger, the 500e can “opportunity” charge while you’re shopping gobbling up 20-25 miles of range for every hour of 240V public charging. Due to the ongoing DC-charging standard war, Fiat decided to skip on the feature leaving 500e owners to gaze longingly at the possibility of gaining 4 miles of range a minute.

The 111HP motor changes the way the 500 drives dramatically. Motors deliver all their torque from nearly zero RPM to moderate speeds. As a result the 500e has far more “oomph” from a stop than the regular gasoline model that needs to rev to bring the power to a boil. This means the EV version has more torque steer and more one-wheel-peel, but it also runs out of breath over 65 MPH in a way the gas model doesn’t. If you mash your foot to the floor you’ll clock 30 MPH in a very respectable 2.69 seconds, 60 MPH in a four-cylinder Accord 7.87 seconds and a slow 79.7 MPH quarter mile after 16.37 seconds. Keep your boot in it and 88 MPH will happen eventually, at which point the Bosch battery management system will kick in with German efficiency reducing power to keep you from toasting your Samsung cells. Those performance numbers slot the 500e right between the $16,000 500 Pop and the $19,500 500 Turbo which makes sense given the linear power delivery EVs are known for.

2013 Fiat 500e LCD Instrument Cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The 500e may have more around-town scoot than its gasoline brother, but an overall weight gain of 600lbs vs the dino model and low rolling resistance rubber define the 500′s handling. While its true the battery pack causes the 500e to have a better weight balance than the gasoline 500, it just means you’re going to head into the bushes door-first rather than nose-first. Still, 2,980lbs is a fairly light electric car and that is obvious when you drive the 500e back-to-back with a Leaf or Fit EV. Electrification hasn’t destroyed the 500′s dynamics, but it has dulled them.

Despite the changes, the 500e is still an excellent runabout with a tight turning radius, decent visibility and (thanks to is small size) it’s a breeze to park. The same can be said of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, but it’s dreadfully ugly and the 500′s pug nose has a cute factor that can’t be denied. The 500e is also running Bosch’s latest regenerative braking software which handles the friction brake/regen brake transition the smoothest of any car I have driven to date, an important feature in a city-EV. Fiat has one selling point we haven’t covered, the ” Pass program” which gives owners “free” access to 12 days of rental car access per year for three years via Enterprise, National or Alamo. The logic is to quell range anxiety with almost a fortnight in a gasoline car for your yearly road trip. Speaking of leases, I’m not sure how many people would pay $31,800 for 500 that ran on electrons, but Fiat’s $999 down, $199 a month (plus a heap of taxes and fees) is fairly attractive. Nissan is also offering a $199 a month lease on the Leaf, but it required another grand down. Based on the little car’s operating costs, the 500e would make an ideal commuter, especially if your employer foots your charging bill (a growing number in California do.) Just keep in mind that you can’t claim that $7,500 tax credit that is heavily advertised by EV makers if you lease, and Fiat only sells the 500e in California. Bummer dude.


Hit it or Quit It?

Hit it

  • Most fun to drive EV this side of a Model S.
  • Good looks can’t be overlooked.
  • 36 days in a rental car sounds like a reasonable perk.

Quit it

  • Fiat’s infotainment options are old school and awkward interfaces abound.
  • No DC quick-charging ability leaves you wishing you had a Leaf sometimes.

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and 24kWh of electricity for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.69 Seconds

0-60: 7.87 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 16.37 Seconds at 79.9 MPH

Average Observed Economy:148 MPGe over 580 miles


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Capsule Review: 2014 Fiat 500L Wed, 19 Jun 2013 13:00:07 +0000 Fiat_Multipla_silver_front

The car you see above is actually not the 2014 Fiat 500L. For most of you, this will be a relief. It’s actually a Fiat Multipla from the mid-1990s. It is ugly. So ugly, in fact, that I love it. I’ve been thinking about importing an LPG-fueled version for use as a daily driver, so that I can fill up at the local taxi garage here for roughly $2/gallon. It’s a terrible idea, I know. Especially when Fiat now sells the Multipla’s successor Stateside.


This is the 500L Trekking, a pseudo-crossover version of the 500L. Is the North Americanized version of the old Multipla, in the same way that Domino’s pizza is the dougy, Americanized version of a thin crust Neapolitan Pizza Margherita. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh though. The 500L’s Euro-creds should be enough to excite those who cling to the notion that l’erba è più verde del continente. It is technically a small wagon, at least according to the EPA. It comes in brown, as well as a shade of brown that looks like coffee with a couple creamers added to it. It’s built in the old Yugo factory in Serbia (errm, that might be too European for some people). You can even get an honest-to-goodness three-pedal transmission, but it’s not very good.

For the rest of the populace that harbors no pretensions to living in the Eurozone, there are two automatic gearboxes; an ironically named “Euro Twin Clutch” transmission, and a conventional 6-speed automatic that will be available later on. Fiat couldn’t really give us a straight answer as to why they offered both, but using my mother as a sample size of one, it’s because she found the DSG in my Dad’s old Jetta 2.0T a bit odd after driving automatics all her life. Perhaps Fiat is prepared for an anti-DCT backlash and they tooled up a run of slushboxes. Maybe they couldn’t get the automatics ready in time? I’m not sure. The “Euro Twin-Clutch” is more like a Powershift than a DSG, but there are subtle hints that this transmission is not a conventional torque converter automatic. Tap the throttle after moving your foot over the from the brake and the revs rise briefly as if you were in a real manual. Shifts aren’t particularly quick or snappy, but they are fairly transparent. The DCT is a better choice than the balky, Novocaine-laced manual, and it does a decent job of keeping the 1.4L turbo engine in its proper powerband. Put aside any notions of the 500L sharing an engine with the Abarth. The acceleration of a 1.4T Dart is a better comparison here.

To its credit, the 500L seems massive inside, likely the result of its goofy looking proportions. Headroom is cavernous and the high driving position makes you feel like you’re in something much bigger than a B-segment car. Although I don’t have kids, I can see the appeal of this car for young families living in urban centers where parking space is scarce; you can easily get a couple car seats in and out of the rear seat, as well as the flotsam and jetsam that goes along with the baby, while sitting having room for groceries, dry cleaning and the pricey espresso maker you just bought at Williams-Sonoma.

Yuppie families aside, I’m not sure who will buy this thing or who it’s intended for. Fiat says it’s a way for current 500 owners to grow into the brand, but I’d imagine that a larger crossover might be a more practical option, albeit a less stylish one – and Fiat seems to be counting on the self-consciousness of their customers to keep them in the brand, constantly referring to the 500L as an “emotional purchase”.

Then again, B-segment tall wagon-thingy market isn’t very big, and the 500L isn’t exactly battling against any heavyweights. The Kia Soul isn’t a bad car, but the interior looks cheap and nasty after you get out of the Fiat, and worst of all for the Baby Bjorn crowd, it wears a Kia badge. The Nissan Cube is utterly dreadful in everyway, and the Countryman isn’t far behind in the “biggest turd on sale today” sweepstakes.

The base model “Pop” trim starts at just $20,195, while the top-spec “Lounge” comes in at $27,445. All trims come with Chrysler’s excellent UConnect system (with varying levels of interfaces, from a small headunit to a large touchscreen), and for the first few months of production, Fiat will throw in navigation, a backup camera and park assist on all trim levels above the Pop. Even if Fiat doesn’t sell a lot of these cars, it won’t matter. The 500L rides on Fiat’s new global small wide architecture, which is expected to underpin a whole bunch of new cars, from the upcoming 500X crossover to some new B-Segment Jeeps aimed at Chinese and European customers. Fiat will make their money back on the platform one way or another, the dealers will be kept happy with some additional product and everyone can go home happy.

Except me. Not until I get my Multipla. That’s a face that only a car writer (or Juke owner) could love.

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Slow Dart Sales Cause Elimination of Shift at Dundee Engine Plant, There’s No Replacement For Displacement Fri, 25 Jan 2013 18:09:49 +0000 Sergio and 1.4L Turbo MultiAir in better times at Dundee. Chrysler Photo

The latest sign that the product planners and marketers at Fiat and Chrysler have muffed the launch of the Dodge Dart is the announcement that their Dundee, Michigan engine plant that builds the Dart’s turbocharged 1.4 liter Multiair FIRE engine has fired or reassigned 58 employees and is eliminating a second shift. The shift reduction follows remarks at the 2013 NAIAS media preview by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne blaming poor Dart sales on the powertrain offerings. “The powertrain solutions we made available to that car, in today’s world, in hindsight, were not the ideal solution,” Mr. Marchionne said. Consumers have been disappointed in sluggish performance of the Dart.  TTAC reviewer Michael Karesh said that 1.4 L turbo motor was “soft south of 3,000 rpm”.

In the critical C segment, where many manufacturers sell 200,000 (or in the case of the Honda Civic >300,000) cars a year in North America, the Dart sold only about 25,000 units since it was introduced in July.

The Dundee plant, originally a joint venture between Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Daimler, is Chrysler’s only American factory that makes four cylinder engines. After the changes, the plant will still employ 750 people. In the personnel moves, fourteen probationary employees were let go (the UAW is appealing their termination) and another 44 were reassigned to other jobs. Chrysler spokesperson Jodi Tinson put a positive face on the plant announcement, since the same factory will soon start building more of the 2.4 liter TigerShark engine that Chrysler hopes will be a better fit for consumers, but her comments more or less acknowledge that product planners made a mistake with the Darts that first hit the showrooms. “We have a new powertrain for the Dart coming online, and so we are rebalancing the mix for the Dart.”

According to Marchionne, another drivetrain improvement for the Dart, a nine-speed automatic transmission supplied by ZF, won’t be ready until 2014.

The Dart is the first new Chrysler product that wasn’t already in the pipeline when Marchionne and his minions were gifted the company by the U.S. government’s task force on restructuring GM and Chrysler. If I’m not mistaken, the production of a MPG small car was part of the government’s conditions on Fiat’s control of the Auburn Hills automaker. The piecemeal way in which the Dart’s powertrain choices are being expanded gives the impression that the car was rushed to market, using whatever they had on the shelf, in this case the 1.4L turbo, originally intended for a smaller car, the Fiat 500.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Versus 2012 Ferrari FF Sat, 01 Sep 2012 13:00:07 +0000  

A few months back, Bertel decreed that TTAC would have no more duplicate reviews. If we wanted to test a car that had already been reviewed, we’d better have a dramatically different take on it. I had a FIAT 500 Abarth for the week. Jack and Alex had already covered it on track and off. I thought someone had a comparison with the MINI Cooper S on the way. What else could I possibly compare the Abarth to that would make sense? It’s not like there are any other high-performance Italian hatchbacks offered in North America…

You’re a single guy (not me) with an appointment to keep (sadly, me) when you happen across a supermodel. You have only a few minutes to spare, but you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t chance a pass, and she’s going to reject you anyway. Except Jeff Cauley is a top-notch dealer with enough of a sense of humor to agree to an “Italian hatchback comparison test.” So here we have all of the insight I could glean from a quickie with “this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy” looping inside my skull.

There are some differences between the FIAT 500 Abarth and the Ferrari FF. We’ll cover those. But the similarities are uncanny. For $1,590, you can grace the fenders of your FF with “Scuderia Ferrari” shields. These are yellow topped with the Italian tricolor.

The Abarth’s fenders include shields as standard equipment. They’re smaller in size, with a scorpion rather than a horse (startled by a scorpion?) displayed sable, but the colors are the same.

A 2+2 two-door hatchback configuration distinguishes both cars from alternatives. The rear seats might barely fit adults, but they’ll do in a pinch, and should serve well with smaller humans. The FF has a considerable edge in cargo volume with the rear seat up (15.9 cubic feet vs. 9.5), but it goes away when the seat is folded (28.3 vs. 26.5).

Matching fitted luggage isn’t available from the FIAT factory at any price, much less $9,967, but there are other ways to contain your empties.

The leather inside the FF is of very high quality, and covers nearly every surface. Nearly every creature comfort is either standard or (in some unexpected cases) optional. Cruise control adds $1,067, a parking camera $3,463, and a dual-screen rear seat entertainment system $5,298. The nav system is as easy to use as that in a Chrysler, perhaps because it’s the same unit. The reconfigurable LCD instruments effectively convey a huge amount of information. (Hopefully they prove as durable as they are functional.) But you can find equally opulent cabins in cars that cost half as much.

Similarly, the Abarth’s decidedly less organic interior materials resemble those in cars that cost roughly half as much (though the red-stitched and upholstered instrument binnacle is a nice touch). Unlike in the Ferrari, cruise control is standard. Nav is provided by a portable unit that plugs into a hole atop the dash, but at least it only adds $400. As with the FF, you’re mostly paying for performance hardware.

What sort of hardware? The FF is powered by a normally-aspirated 6.3-liter engine that produces 660 horsepower (PS) at its 8,000 rpm redline. Torque peaks at a similarly lofty 6,000 rpm, but there’s plenty to be found just off idle, courtesy of the Vette-like displacement. Not that you’ll want to keep revs low. The V12′s tenor wail, more like that of a sport bike than any non-Italian car, is pistonhead nirvana, with never a note out of place. No manual transmission is offered, perhaps because none would be nearly as quick nor as smooth as the rear-mounted seven-speed automated dual-clutch unit. An ingenious all-wheel-drive system is standard. Instead of a transfer case, it employs a two-speed automatic transmission connected to a clutch pack for each wheel to grab power as needed (to maintain stability and traction) from the front of the engine. Is it quick? Of course it’s quick, so quick that you can barely scratch the powertrain’s potential at semi-legal speeds on public roads. In track testing, sixty arrives in about 3.5 seconds. This said, there’s more of a sensation of speed than in some other extremely powerful cars, where you arrive at 60 with little memory of the trip.

Does the thought of clutches that must continuously slip to do their job scare you? Or perhaps your environmental sensibilities cannot tolerate EPA ratings of 11 city and 17 highway? Then the 28/34 500 might be more your thing. For the Abarth, FIAT turbocharges the 500′s 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine to yield 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Unless you forget to hit the sport button, in which case the engine peaks around 135 horsepower, the throttle lags, and the car feels unworthy of its fancy badges. So be sure to hit the button to the right of the red-stitched, flat-bottomed steering wheel each time you start the car.

Even with the sport button pushed, there’s little torque below 3,000 rpm even after the turbo spools up. The Abarth’s song isn’t remotely as refined as the FF’s, such that “song” seems an ill-chosen term, but what it lacks in quality it strives to make up for in quantity. Some will find its boom, snap, and crackle overly raucous, but for me the Abarth’s drone is reasonably low when cruising and its exhaust doesn’t bark loudly on deceleration the way the Dodge Neon SRT4′s (tuned by some of the same folks) did. The five-speed’s shifter is mounted oddly high, its shift feel is slightly sloppy, and the clutch vaguely grabs at the very top of its long travel. Despite this iffy execution, a conventional manual remains the best partner for the Abarth’s engine. A good thing, as no automated option is offered. The front wheels are driven all the time, the rears never. As in the Ferrari, the engine’s testa is dressed in rossa.

For a mere $1,445 you can get the FF’s massive calipers (which squeeze 15.7-inch rotors) in red.

The Abarth has red calipers as a standard feature (perhaps because less paint is needed). Its smaller brakes are charged with retarding far less curb weight, 2,512 vs. 4,145 pounds.

Both cars have reasonably raked windshields and so no need for extra-deep instrument panels. But here the similarity of their driving positions ends. To achieve a 47/53 weight distribution, Ferrari mounted the FF’s long engine entirely behind the front axle, yielding a very long hood. For less obvious reasons, the FF also happens to be very wide. Consequently, while the FF might feel lighter than it is, it doesn’t feel smaller than it is. Instead, it feels at least as large as a Panamera, and similar in overall character. The tape measure reports similar dimensions (193.2 x 76.9 x 54.3 inches vs. 195.6 x 76.0 x 55.8). The FF has less length abaft the driver but more inches ahead, and you sit a little lower behind a taller instrument panel and longer hood. But, compared to the driving position in one of the science fiction experiments from Lamborghini, the FF’s is downright practical.

The Abarth’s driving position occupies the opposite extreme. You sit so high that the car feels tippy even though, once the firm suspension takes a set, it’s not. Seat adjustments are far more limited than in the Ferrari, and unless you’re in the left tail of the bell curve you won’t be using the one for height. There’s far less hood ahead of you, and you don’t see the little there is. Excellent for forward visibility, not so good for sporting character.

During my test drive, where the FF’s suspension remained well within its capabilities, the car felt every bit as balanced as one with a 47/53 weight distribution should. The throttle can be used to nudge the rear end around, and the FF feels more lively than the typical all-wheel-drive car, perhaps because in balls-short-of-the-wall dry road driving the front wheels are declutched. The FF’s steering is light yet fairly communicative and shockingly quick (perhaps even too quick for such a large car). Compared to a Porsche Panamera, it takes longer (and longer than I had) to become acclimated behind the control-festooned wheel of the FF. The Porsche, while also feeling like a super-sized sports car, is a more intuitive car to drive quickly. But even in casual driving the FF engages. Once everything is tweaked to taste (a mind-boggling number of adjustments are available, but unlike in the FIAT the settings appear to be retained when the car is turned off) and the Ferrari becomes familiar it would no doubt be the more satisfying car to drive.

Simply due to its could-hardly-be-more-different dimensions, proportions, and weight distribution (64/36), the Abarth handles much differently. Contrary to some other reports, understeer isn’t excessive, but you’ll never forget that the FIAT is a tall, nose-heavy, front-wheel-drive car. Despite its much more compact dimensions and lesser weight (1,600 vs. 1,950 pounds) over narrower front tires (205/40ZR17 vs. 245/35ZR20), the Abarth’s steering is less communicative and lacks the quickness I expect in a tiny hatchback. No surprise given its much shorter wheelbase (90.6 vs. 117.7 inches), higher center of gravity, and far less sophisticated suspension, the Abarth also doesn’t ride nearly as smoothly as the Ferrari. The FF might also have the Panamera beat in this last aspect.

The FIAT 500 Abarth starts at $22,700. The 17-inch wheels add one grand. Leather adds another. A convenience package, nav, and red mirrors plus stripes (a box I’d uncheck) bumped the tested car’s price to $26,200. On the one hand, this seems a little steep given the car’s size, performance potential, and amenities. Another thousand will get you a roomier, much more capable and considerably more enjoyable MazdaSpeed3. On the other hand, the Abarth’s price is well under one-tenth of the Ferrari’s. The FF is theoretically available for just $298,750. But options added over $60,000 to the car I drove, and over $100,000 to another in the showroom. Air freight (not included in the sub-300 price) added $5,000 to a car that had been shipped to Michigan, $9,000 to one that had originally deplaned in Arizona. It’s not clear if the gas guzzler tax is included in the base price or buried in a substantial “other options” figure (both cars included far more items than could fit on the window sticker).

So, which Italian hatchback is the best one for you? The FF is an exercise in what happens when cost isn’t much of an object and the sheet starts clean. You fit a highly-tuned, naturally-aspirated V12 for seamless power, mount it far back for balance, pair it with an automated manual for quick responses, and employ all-wheel-drive on an as-needed basis for traction. The apparently unavoidable downsides of all this optimization are size, weight, and cost. Enough money fixes the last, and the second isn’t terribly evident, but the first doesn’t ever go away. The FF is very much the ultimate expression (until its replacement arrives) of the GT concept. For similar performance in a smaller car, you’re going to have to give up some cylinders, the rear seat, a lot of luggage capacity, or all of the above.

Perhaps you want a tidier hatchback that can be more fully exploited on public roads at legal speeds. Or your budget simply doesn’t extend north of $300,000. But you also want Italian style complete with red highlights everywhere the Ferrari has them and tricolor fender badges. Then the Abarth is the obvious choice.

Cauley Ferrari in West Bloomfield, MI, provided the FF. For those with smaller budgets, Cauley also operates a used car dealership with its heart in the right place—you’ll find no boring cars on the lot. They can be reached at 866-353-8629.

FIAT provided the 500 Abarth with insurance and a tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates, a provider of car reliability and pricing information.

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Review: 2012 Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0-liter Turbo Diesel Tue, 31 Jul 2012 15:48:47 +0000

We decided to take a family vacation this summer in Italy, starting in Florence and driving into rural Tuscany to spend a mellow week in a rental villa near some friends. I reserved a “Ford Focus or equivalent” with Hertz and, after a thoroughly unpleasant hour in the queue (“not exactly” indeed), they handed me the keys to an Alfa Romeo Giulietta with a manual transmission, two liter turbo diesel. Forza Italia! I now had one week with the sort of car that American TTAC readers often like to grouse about their inability to buy at home.

First up, the snout. To my American eyes, modern Alfa Romeo cars are very striking. You’ll not mistake them for anything else… at least if you’re looking from the front. That upside-down-triangle grill is loud and proud. While the earlier Alfa 159 accompanied it with a thin headlight bar that gave the resulting car an angry, sharp, purposeful appeal, the Giulietta softens the grill with rounded headlights and front fascia. More than one native Italian we met took positive note of the car.

Enough about styling. How about practicality? The hatchback is big. It’s not as deep as the trunk in our Acura TL but it’s usefully taller, and definitely has more usable space than a VW Golf. All our bags fit comfortably back there with room to spare. Many of the little details of the Alfa are comparable to what you might find in a Golf: switchblade key, comfortable cloth seats with limited manual adjustments, baseball-sized shift knob, etc. Still, the Italians couldn’t help themselves with style over substance. My daughter, 7 years old, had to reach up as high as she could to open the back door, since they moved the handle up next to the C-pillar. My wife, five feet tall, had trouble reaching up to close the hatch when it was open. As the driver, I appreciated the tilt and telescoping wheel. I didn’t appreciate that the clock was in tiny lettering that my passengers couldn’t see.

Interior room is great. The backseat has plenty of space for real adults. The driving position has you sitting relatively high. You have a very good feel for your four corners, which is deeply necessary when navigating some of the smaller streets in old Italian cities and towns.

On to the driving! The diesel has all the benefits and drawbacks that you’d expect. The low redline means you’re shifting much earlier than your gasoline-trained instincts tell you. Likewise, you can run at a much lower RPM than any small gasoline engine would ever tolerate. The computer nags you to shift early, seemingly trying its best to keep the engine under 1200rpm. At a low engine speed like that, you can put your foot down and damn near nothing happens at all. The engine’s personality completely changes around 2000rpm, when the turbo spools up and you suddenly feel the power. Shift before the redline and you’re still in the power band and life’s good. This contrasts, for example, with the Hyundai Veloster (1.6 liter non-turbo, manual) that I test drove a few months ago for giggles. Wind the Veloster up to the redline, shift, and you’ve got nothing. The Giulietta does much better (as, I hope, does the Veloster Turbo). For what it’s worth, the Giulietta’s gear and clutch feel are nothing particularly special. There’s none of Honda’s awesome snickety-snick shifting, and the Giulietta’s clutch grab point is a bit nebulous.

The real standout feature of the Giulietta is its suspension. During our vacation, we ranged from cobblestone streets to zippy autostrada, from smooth twisty cutbacks to bumpy gravel side roads. The Giulietta’s suspension is all about trying to preserve some dignity when faced with punishing roads. Yes, you’ll feel it when driving over crap, but the Giulietta damps out a lot of the vibrations while still keeping things relatively tight. The few times I did some “spirited” driving through the twisties, the car felt comfortable and composed. Still, this is no racing car. Does the Giulietta have “passion and soul” and lovely growling exhaust notes as Top Gear’s James May notes of earlier Alfas?  Maybe the gasoline engines do, but for the diesel, no. It’s a nice car, but you won’t fall in love with it.

Deep down inside, I’m a gadget guy, and this is where the Giulietta let me down. The base-model stereo in our car had no aux input for my phone. According to the owner’s manual, you only get that ten-cent jack with the much pricier “Blu & Me” package. (And, at least on the Fiat 500 I once played with at a Texas dealership, Blu & Me doesn’t include Bluetooth A2DP for stereo music streaming. Boo, hiss!) This was probably the most obvious place where some Fiat Group beancounter blew it for everybody.

Once I figured out how to convert the onscreen menus to English, I saw a long list of adjustments, but no way to fix the things that were most annoying. Foremost, the car raises holy screaming hell if one of your passengers unbuckles before the car has come to a complete stop. Also annoying: the car insists on asking you to shift early and often. What you can do, however, is change the car from “normal” to “dynamic” mode. According to the owner’s manual, this increases max torque by 10%, which you’d never notice. However, it replaces the shift indicator light with the Alfa “DNA” logo. Yes indeed, 10% less guilt definitely improves driving dynamics.

Other gadgety features: the Giulietta will turn the engine off when waiting at a light. Once you push the clutch in, the engine starts back up all by itself. Despite this, if you were dumb enough to turn the key with the car in gear and the clutch engaged, the starter motor happily tries to drag the car along; the ignition doesn’t require you to have the clutch pedal down. (Yes, go ahead, ask me how I figured that out.) The Giulietta has a hill holding feature that works pretty well. It has a rear sonar parking assist to help you nudge your car as far back as it can go. The lights and wipers also have automatic modes. It even auto-restarts the engine if you stall it. (Yes, sigh.)

What about mileage? About half of our driving time was on the autostrada, half on local twisty roads. According to the trip computer, we averaged 5.8 l / 100 km (40.5 mpg). This is the same as the Giulietta’s official “city” mileage rating. (Wikipedia has all the stats.) The Giulietta’s official “combined” rating is 4.7 l / 100km (50 mpg). My freeway driving was pretty sedate, since I wasn’t keen to get ticketed by the autostrada’s ubiquitous speed cameras, so this means that mountain driving, with the turbo spooled up and driving with proper engine braking, is unsurprisingly detrimental to this car’s mileage. At the end of the trip, before I handed the car back, I spent roughly $100 filling the tank for 800 km of driving, with maybe a quarter of a tank left. (What great range!) To drive the same distance and style in my Acura TL, with it’s super-unleaded-mandatory V6, I would have expected to have averaged 20 mpg, yielding roughly the same dollar-cost-per-mile, assuming you’re comfortable with my comparing U.S. gasoline prices with a big V6 sedan against European diesel prices with a smaller turbo 4-cylinder car.

In Europe, the value proposition of the Giulietta is clear: high mileage and excellent interior space in a car that fits into smaller places while giving you decent amounts of “sport” and “style”. Today, in the U.S., the closest car you can buy to the Giulietta is the new Dodge Dart. It’s the same basic platform, but of course you can’t get the diesel or the hatchback. The big question: if cars like the Giulietta diesel or the comparable BMW 180d Sport were offered in the States, how well would they sell? Based on my week in the Giulietta, I’d imagine they could do quite well.

Giulietta, front fascia Giulietta, side profile Love it or hate it, you won't mistake the Giulietta for anything else. Giulietta logo Oddball rear door handles. Giulietta, rear view This Giulietta had the optional automatic climate control, which did an admirable job. Giulietta dashboard Giulietta steering wheel The cost-reduced stereo is a bad joke. Switches below toggle the front and rear fog lights, the engine start-stop system, and the door locks. The "DNA" switch lets you select "dynamic", "normal", or "all weather" driving programs. 6-speed manual transmission Not much to see in the engine compartment. The Giulietta cuts a striking pose.

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Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth – Take Two Fri, 20 Jul 2012 14:23:51 +0000  

Abarth was founded in 1952 as a “one-stop-shop” for Fiat performance gear. What does that have to do with the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth? Nothing. Seriously. In 1971 Abarth was purchased by Fiat, by the 1990s the “brand” had deteriorated to a trim level on questionable hatchbacks and by 2000 it was “dead trim walking.” In 2007 Fiat decided they needed a performance brand once again and resurrected Abarth with the inexplicably named “Fiat Grande Punto Abarth” and (more importantly) a complete line of clothing and accessories. Despite the apparent soft start for the brand in the Euro-zone, Fiat tells us they held nothing back for the launch of Abarth in North America. Our own tame racing driver Jack took the Abarth for a spin on the track back in March but this time we’re pitting Italy’s hot hatch against a bigger challenge: the daily commute.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Unlike the Mercedes takeover merger with Chrysler last century, the Fiat/Chrysler tie-up seems to be bearing some interesting fruit. No, I’m not talking about Chrysler’s use of MultiAir in the Dart, or the cozy relationship with ZF Friedrichshafen AG (ZF transmissions), I’m talking about Fiat getting Chrysler’s engineers involved in Fiat designs. Say what? You heard that right, the North American Abarth is not the same car as the Euro model and we can thank Chrysler. Because Fiat knew there had to be some changes for North American consumption, they told the SRT group to think outside the “Americanization” box. The result is an Abarth that borrows heavily from the Euro model but has some significant improvements. Yes, improvements.


With just over 40,000 Fiat 500s of any description driving around on our shores, the design is unique enough to cause traffic to slow and heads to turn. As you would expect, there are plenty of go-fast tweaks on the outside of the small Italian. Out back we get a larger spoiler, ginormous dual-exhaust tips, rear diffuser and a different bumper cover. Up front the changes are more pronounced. In order to make the engine and intercoolers fit, Fiat stretched the nose of the 500 by 2.7 inches. The result of the rhinoplasty is a peculiar “trouty mouth” side profile caused by the hood stamping remaining the same. Despite this faux pas fopah (I kid, I kid), the rest of the 500′s sheetmetal is cohesive and attractive, in a way the MINI Coupé can only dream of. Rounding out the sport treatment is a 15mm reduced ride height with unique 16-inch wheels standard, and optional 17-inch wheels (the 17s are wrapped in low-profile performance rubber.)


Fiat and the SRT team tweaked the interior for Abarth duty, but the basics of the base 500′s $15,500 interior are still here. That being said, all the touch surfaces in the Abarth are close to haptic perfection with one of the best steering wheels and shift knobs available in a vehicle under $40,000. I should point out that the Abarth’s most logical competition comes from MINI, a brand known for blending expensive switchgear and steering wheels with cheesy headliners and carpet. With the Abarth’s interior bits only a notch below MINI, the decidedly lower sticker price forgives just about everything in my mind. When it comes to hauling luggage, the 500 somehow trumps the MINI Cooper with 9.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats in place and 26.8 with them folded (vs 5.7 / 24 cubic feet in the Cooper.)

Not all is perfect inside. The American Abarth gets unique front seats that are (oddly enough) more heavily bolstered than the standard Euro seats, but the distinct lack of lumbar support made them uncomfortable for my average sized 6-foot 180lb frame. While the Euro Abarth has optional Recaro-themed sport seats and plenty of after market alternatives, American buyers have somewhat limited options if they choose to replace the seats. This is important if you intend to track you Abarth and need to install a 5-point harness. Still, I keep returning to price. Mini’s JCW seats aren’t more comfortable, and since the Abarth is considerably cheaper, you can more easily afford to fix this deficiency. Like the regular 500, the rear seats are small, but thanks to the 500′s roof profile and the shape of the rear “foot-wells”, it is entirely possible to fit four 6-foot tall adults in the 500.


Like base 500 models, all Abarths are equipped with “Blue & Me.” This system combines Bluetooth integration and rudimentary voice commands. If you were expecting SYNC-like iDevice or USB control, you’ll be disappointed with the 2007-era interface. It’s too complicated to explain in print, so if you’d like to know more, check out our TTAC Quick Clips video of the base 500C. Also standard on the Abarth is Fiat’s seven speaker Bose audio system which uses a compact subwoofer under the passenger seat. Sound quality is excellent, not just for the price class the Abarth plays in, but for vehicles twice the Abarth’s $22,000 base price ($25,000 as equipped.) While the audio system’s balance is very good, with such a small driver in the sub, if you are into big bass, install your own beatbox.

Because 6 years is an eternity in the electronics world, you can’t get a fancy integrated navigation system like MINI (and just about everyone else) offers. Fiat’s solution to this problem is an oddly integrated TomTom navigation unit. I say oddly integrated both in terms of the look of the odd dashboard “docking connector” (checkout the video above for more information) as well as the unique way it integrates with the vehicle. Yep, that’s right it integrates with the car in a way your Garmin won’t. Once you pair the TomTom (with the custom Blue & Me software installed) to the 500 you can use the steering wheel buttons to command the TomTom. In addition to remote controls the TomTom will also display trip computer and media player information. While this approach is novel, it is also seriously kludgy.


As with the rest of the 500, the engine isn’t an Italian transplant. Say what? The 1.4L four-clinder turbo engine is built in Michigan. Building a new assembly line in Michigan afforded Fiat the opportunity to make some improvements under the hood. While the basics remain the same with twin intercoolers and MultiAir VVT on tap, the IHI turbo has been swapped for a larger Garrett GT1446 that bumps performance in an important way. Power increases to 160HP from 158 and peaks at a lower 5,500RPM instead of 5,750. The big deal is the torque curve which drops from a sharpish peak at 3,000RPM to a 170lb-ft plateau that stretches from 2,500-4,000RPM (150lb-ft when not in “sport” mode). Thanks to the MultiAir system, the turbo’s 18psi (maximum) of boost can still be enjoyed with 87 octane gasoline (although Fiat is quick to remind us that 91 is recommended if you plan on tracking your Abarth or running in hot climates.) In an interesting nod to performance junkies (as well as those that want their turbo to last a lifetime) Fiat incorporates an “after run” electric water pump to cool the turbo after the car is shut off. Sadly Fiat missed the opportunity to add an extra cog to the 500′s transmission, instead using a heavy-duty version of the same 5-speed manual as the regular 500. Unlike the Euro Abarth models, there is no “automated” version available so working knowledge of a clutch pedal is required.


The Abarth is a flat-out blast to drive. This is not only thanks to the 60% increase in power and 70% increase in torque, but also to the low-profile tires, 40% stiffer springs, and lowered chassis.The Abarth may look like a tall vehicle, but with a curb weight of only 2,512lbs “chuckable” is the best way to describe the handling. As you would expect, Fiat tossed in a quicker 15.1:1 steering ratio and tweaked the power assist for a sportier feel. While the ratio is “no big deal” to me, the tweaked electric power steering is more important. It is still numb, but hints of feedback can now be felt through the tiller. Despite having a less fancy “elegant” suspension setup than the MINI, the little Italian is remarkably planted on poorly paved mountain roads inspiring an unexpected level of confidence.

While all these changes make the Abarth an absolute blast in the corners, they take a serious toll on ride quality for your daily commute. Unless you live in some hitherto-unknown pavement-nirvana, potholes and broken pavement are a way of life in the “land of the free.” After a week with the Abarth, I may still have had a smile on my face, but my back and kidneys had a different opinion. That being said, the Abarth is no harsher than the MINI JCW models and actually handles broken pavement with more finesse.

I’ve saved the final change made for our market for last: the exhaust note. This is perhaps the most controversial facet of the Abarth, since Fiat tuned the system to be louder than the Euro hatch. I found the drone on a long highway commute to be annoying, but passengers and our Facebook fans thought it was pure sex. Go figure.

Much like the MINI competition, straight-line performance isn’t what the Abarth is about. As you would expect with 0nly 160 horses under the hood, the Abarth scooted to 60 in just over 7 seconds. With the right driver I have little doubt a further two tenths could be cut from the time, but managing front wheel spin and traction would be essential to reducing your time. To deal with the increased weight of the North American Abarth, the SRT team cranked up the front camber to a -1.5 degrees up front. Thankfully for those interested in tire life beyond 5,000 miles Fiat has an alignment spec which allows for a decent amount of personal preference.

The Abarth is destined to make Fiat fans very happy. It’s also destined to give MINI shoppers that are willing to look at another brand a serious dilemma: is a comparable MINI worth an $8,000-$10,000 premium? Being the cheap bastard that I am, my answer is no. Consider that the MINI Cooper S scoots to 60 in 6.6 but doesn’t handle quite as well, and the MINI JCW models may get to 60 faster and handle as well as the Abarth, but they cost nearly 50% more. While I find the Abarth just a bit to extreme for my soft-suspension-loving backside, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is one hot little hatch. Fiat: you have my number, call me when you stuff this engine into the 500c with some softer springs.


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Fiat provided the vehicle, one tank of gas, and insurance for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.63 Seconds

0-60: 7.05 Seconds (6.8 sounds plausible with a professional driver)

1/4 Mile: 15.3 Seconds @ 91 MPH

Average Fuel Economy: 26.71  MPG over 541 miles


2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior 3/4, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior side, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior side, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior front side, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior rear 3/4, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior rear, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior front, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior front, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior wheel, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior grille, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, gauges, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, dashboard, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, shifter and HVAC, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, shifter and HVAC, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, shifter, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, steering wheel, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, steering wheel, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, driver's side dashboard, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, dashboard, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, rear seats, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, rear seats, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, cargo area, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, cargo area, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, cargo area, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth MultiAir Turbo engine, photo courtesy of Chrysler North America 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth MultiAir Turbo engine, photo courtesy of Chrysler North America 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth TomTom Nav unit, photography courtesy of Alex L. Dykes Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 80
Generation Why: Fast Fashion Comes To The Car World Tue, 17 Jul 2012 13:00:24 +0000

Sometime toward the end of my high school years, “fast fashion” shops like Zara and H&M set up shop in at the local malls, and became the place to shop. The clothing there wasn’t any better than the Gap or the Ralph Lauren remainders at Marshall’s, but if you paid for your own clothes, you would have been silly to shop anywhere else.

Shopping at those stores went beyond mere fashion considerations. If you spilled beer all over your shirt at a party, it wasn’t even worth sending it to the dry cleaners. Just throw it in the washing machine and hope it comes out. If that fails, pay $9.99 for another one. Eventually, people got wise to the fact that after three washes, the clothes tended to fall apart, but we willingly ignored the cheapness because we could look cool on a tight budget. Which is exactly why the Fiat 500 exists.

Just as H&M and Zara exploded in popularity in Canada, so has Fiat. American sales for the little Mexitalian minicar have been slow to ramp up in the United States. Not so here. In May of this year, Fiat outsold Buick, Volvo, Infiniti, Mini, Cadillac, Lincoln, Suzuki and Scion, and Canada is already confirmed for a third model line – likely the widely acclaimed Panda. And yet, up until now, I hadn’t driven one. All I had to go by were mixed reviews. One Mini-owning friend disparaged it as “a Neon in a cool wrapper”, while TTAC’s own Andrew Bell felt that there was a quality gap between our North American-spec model, and the examples he saw during his multi-year stint in Denmark.

The first thing I noticed upon climbing inside is that you sit really high up, or at least have the illusion of doing so. Imagine getting into a life-sized Kinder Surprise egg, and then plopping your rear down on a bar stool, and you have a good approximation of the Fiat’s driving position. The interior is dominated by a big panel of body-colored plastic, while the window switches and stereo knobs are all easy to reach for and can be operated without taking your eyes off the road. The steering wheel has controls for the Bluetooth system, but strangely no audio controls are visible – until you discover that they’re situated on the back of the wheel, like paddle-shifters for your music – well-intentioned, if not cleverly executed idea.

In the same way that the “top-stitching” on my Roberto Cavalli for H&M suit coat betrays a fused canvas, a closer look at the details shows that the 500 was built to a price, down to the last penny. For an outside opinion, I called in TTAC’s interior materials specialist, Berthold Schmaus, who is able to get down into the nooks and crannies that us humans can’t quite see.

Herr Schmaus’ first observation was that the headliner wasn’t just “mouse fur”, but it was his own fur. No, really. It may be difficult to see it in the photos, but Fiat and Herr Schamus must have some kind of common ancestor that supplies them both with their downy coverings. Herr Schmaus was also unimpressed with the naked metal seat rails, not so much for their utilitarian nature, but on account of the sharp metal edges that left him unable to scamper underneath to confirm reports of exposed electrical connectors and tasty wiring (yum!).

The 1.4L Multiair engine is, to put it mildly, gutless. Going up moderate grades in third gear necessitated a downshift to second. The “Sport Mode” is required for anyone who gives a whit about driving. The rumored 500T cannot come soon enough. On the plus side, the chassis isn’t bad, nor is the gearchange feel, and the diminutive footprint is perfect for bobbing and weaving in and out of Toronto’s traffic jams, which are longer than the lines on Yonge St for a Justin Beiber autograph session. You could almost lane-split in this car. Almost.

If you look around, it’s possible to get a base model Pop for $199 a month lease deal around these parts, or $13,999 in cash. A well-equipped Lounge, like my tester, is going for $18,600 at dealers – though every community newspaper in town is being supported by Toronto area Fiat dealers advertising steep discounts on their copious Fiat inventories. For the price, the 500 isn’t a terrible proposition. While a cheap shirt can be worn out and thrown away after a few months, a cheap car can be worn out, but leave you stuck with a note for 5 or more years.

If I were to go for a “fast fashion” car (i.e. something with less functionality but more cred than say, a perfectly good Kia Rio), I’d step up to the “Zara” level of quality and get a Mini Cooper. There weren’t any pressers available for me to drive, but my Zipcar membership gives me access to a fleet of some of the hardest-worn Mini Coopers in town.



Herr Schmauss and I went over the Mini quite carefully, and came away impressed. The interior is busier than the Fiat, to the point of being incoherent, but the quality of the materials is a noticeable cut above. Rather than being deathtrap-slow, the Cooper is Miata-slow; pokey, but enjoyable. It’s still small enough to be city-friendly, but not enough to be lost in the blind spots of SUVs. The driving experience is a whole other order of fun, with weighty, direct steering, a communicative chassis and the feeling that you’re driving a real car and not an espresso cup with a motor. Of course, Mini’s reliability record ranges from “not great” to “abysmal”, depending on who you ask ($8000 CVT replacements, anyone?)

Thousands of Canadians are seemingly happy with their Fiats, and for good reason; it does exactly what they want it to do; look chic and stylish, not sip too much gas and fit into small parking spaces. Long-term reliability and the driving experience don’t factor in too highly for them, even if those factors give me pause when it comes to recommending either of them outright.

Personally, I’ve had a change in perception, and have begun shopping with classic looks and quality in mind. Sometimes, it means going to a second-hand store for gently used but well made clothing. The good news is that it’s easy to find, the *ahem* designer labels that are really cool…




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Vellum Venom: 2012 FIAT 500 Gucci Convertible Fri, 09 Mar 2012 13:39:50 +0000


Gucci is no stranger to OEM trim packages for major manufacturers. The House of Gucci originally lent its unique Italian flavor to somewhat of an Intercontinental Bastard: a leaf sprung, Chevy Nova based Cadillac with a Spanish name.

That car is the original Seville, but the 1979 model. And while hideous, the sheer audacity of the Gucci Seville puts every Seville after 1985 to shame. That’s because the second-generation (1980-1985) Cadillac Seville made for the most Gucci worthy platform on the planet. It’s Hooper body throwback design was dying for something as ludicrous as Gucci’s graphics.

But the nicest Gucci for people looking for the basics of this designer brand in a non-offensive wrapper was the 1989 Lincoln Town Car Gucci edition.  The canvas top was solid blue, white paint, and sported a very tame (by Gucci standards) leather and cloth seat design.  This car was a looker, plus the Lincoln Town Car was a machine to be respected on presence, durability and value.  Not so with any Caddy from this era, which sported powertrains about as durable as knock-offs of said designer’s handbags. The sensible Gucci?  Well, perhaps not.

But now we have the FIAT 500 Gucci. Perhaps it’s because both designs are Italian in heritage, the meeting of these two brands is rather seamless. Too bad I can’t say perfect.


The front of the new 500 is cute and pretty enough, and Gucci’s chrome bumper guards don’t necessarily add or detract from the package. From here there’s no reason to question the 500’s staying power against the MINI Cooper.


Not so as we start moving across. Note the ratio of sheet metal in the wheel arch to the wheels. Note the sheer bulkiness of the side view mirrors. This car is becoming less cute. Which is far less cool than a MINI Cooper.


Don’t get me wrong, those Gucci wheels are pure decadence and deliciousness.  And making them body color is even cooler, fashion statement wise.  The B-pillar badging is totally worth bragging about. What lets the whole package down is the fact that the FIAT 500 is taller and clumsier looking than the MINI Cooper. See that body side crease right above the door handle? If the greenhouse started there and the roof line ended accordingly, this would be a very pretty, unquestionably cute vehicle.

Instead, FIAT gave us a dumpy little crossover, an alternative to a Suzuki SX4…but only in styling terms, of course.


Once again, imagine the FIAT 500 if the crease in the middle was where the greenhouse started. We’d have a serious threat to the MINI’s lock on cuteness and fashionista approved style.


That said, the details on the FIAT 500 Gucci drop top do not disappoint. The Gucci fabric for the roof is pretty slick, even though I seriously doubt most men would publicly admit this. But it is true: so go ahead and feel good about it.


Here’s a shot of that B-pillar. Yes, it does make you feel a little more special when you enter the 500’s cabin. And that’s precisely why designer editions of regular vehicles exist!


I don’t normally want to photograph the inside of a vehicle for this series, but the Gucci’s trimmings are worth the effort. The “Double G” leather, two-tone design, Gucci stripe inserts and matching seatbelts are like nothing seen on a modern car.  In this age of boring gray, tan, black or an interesting color merely used as an accent (I’m looking at every car with brown seats but still with black carpets and dashtops) the Gucci 500’s trimmings are a serious breath of fresh air. I like it.

I suspect the polarizing nature of the Gucci combined with the Italian cute factor of the 500 make it a perfect pairing. But if only that belt line went down, since it needs that to be a beautiful car.

Put another way, I wonder what it would take to get a Gucci trimmed MINI Cooper instead. That would be a winner.

]]> 29
Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Mon, 05 Mar 2012 16:15:00 +0000 It’s a strange, strange world out there. Image trumps reality, corporate positioning trumps national identity, the fake conquers the real. Want proof? Consider the Fiat 500 Abarth. The now-iconic television ad features some hapless beta male enduring a strangely erotic tongue-lashing at the hands of a beautiful Italian woman who then mysteriously turns into a chunky little Italian car. Makes perfect sense. Except the Italian girl (Catrinel Menghia) is Romanian, and Italian car which was supposedly tuned by an Austrian racer turns out to be a Mexican car with an American hot-rod engine tuned by Detroit racers. This makes slightly less sense.

Luckily the Abarth itself doesn’t require much in the way of context in order to be enjoyed. If you’d like some, feel free to check out our previous reviews of the naturally-aspirated 500. Finished? Fantastic. We’ve reviewed the little Fiat from an economy-car perspective in the past, but now it’s time to exchange the pocket protectors for my Impact! Carbon Air Draft. Buckle up: it’s racetrack time.

The first thing you need to understand about this 500 Abarth is that it isn’t really a 500 Abarth. In other words, it’s not the Euro-market performance 500 brought over and Americanized. Rather, it’s the North American 500 (charmingly referred to as the “NAFTA 500″ by the PR folks) with a thorough performance makeover. The differences in weight and structure between the American and European base cars meant that the suspension calibrations had to be done again from scratch. Camber was increased to a very aggressive -1.5 degrees up front. Good for the driver, bad for tire lifetime. Those tires, by the way, are sixteen-inch Pirelli P7s stock, with seventeen-inch P Zero Neros as an option. Those of us who remember the days when the P7 was the performance tire will smile every time we see them. Koni FSD shocks are specified to hold up the front end. That’s a bit of a Mopar trick.

The Fiat MultiAir engine is turbocharged, retuned, and treated to a full SRT-4 upgrade kit’s worth of forged pistons and special rods. Your humble author had real deja vu listening to the engine guys talk about the changes made; it’s like going back in time to 2003 and hearing what was done to the Neon. The changes yield 160 horsepower from the 1.4-liter mill, which is assembled in Dundee, MI. A few years, I opined that the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 should be properly called the Ford Mustang SVT; this Fiat 500 could wear the SRT nameplate with equal pride. One part that does come from Fiat: the underwhelming five-speed manual, which features equal-length driveshafts in this application.

As with the old SRT-4 Neon, considerable effort has been expended to upgrade the “touch points” facing the driver. I grabbed a zero-options Abarth for the seventy-mile drive from the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas to Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, NV, knowing that all the basic goodies were included. First impressions: the shifter and steering wheel feel positively exotic, dontcha know. It’s an upscale, enjoyable experience to snip through the Strip traffic, but there are a few bugs in this Italian wedding soup.

Problem Uno: the electronic throttle. The Abarth has two fuel/boost programs: regular, and Sport. The non-Sport mode limits torque and reduces the aggressiveness of intake openings, ostensibly for maximum economy. (34MPG highway, by the way.) In practice, selecting this mode hobbles the car with unacceptable throttle lag. Rev-matching on downshifts becomes almost impossible; the engine simply hangs on to revs like an early three-liter E46 Bimmer, which is to say in the most stubborn, miserable, EPA-test-conscious manner possible. There’s no reason for this other than to create a tangible gap between normal and Sport modes. It’s trickery, it’s fakery, and it’s unworthy of the car.

Also unworthy of the car: the dumb-assed instrument panel, which has concentric ring gauges for revs and road speed. Ray LaHood would burst his aorta watching the dull red needles move on a dark blah background. It’s almost unreadable and it’s a worse distraction from the road than playing Angry Birds for cash while driving. In recognition of this, the SRT guys threw a shift light in the Abarth. On cloudy days, or at night, and if the driver is positioned just so, the shift light is somewhat visible. After a few miles I resigned myself to operating the FIAT based on the audible cues from the megaphone-muffled exhaust, which snorts, snuffles, and backfires its way along at a volume somewhat beyond the capacity of the base stereo to cover. That’s another Neon SRT-4 trick.

Part of the drive to Spring Mountain is a forty-mile freeway drone, and here the Abarth acquits itself surprisingly well for a car with less wheelbase than a CJ-7 Jeep. Crosswinds don’t terrify and the relatively high seating position turns out to be a bit of an asset. While this never feels like an overpowered car — fifteen-second quarter-mile, remember — there’s enough thrust on tap to make merging and overtaking absolutely worry-free. A sixth gear wouldn’t go amiss, though, and it would certainly do something for that highway fuel economy.

I’m told that the Mopar FIAT team developed the Abarth at Nelson Ledges Road Course, where it turned a 1:23.6 pretty consistently. That’s about what Car and Driver extracted from a 1996 Boxster 2.5 back in the day, and it’s a competitive laptime for SCCA ITB racing, so it’s respectable. Nelson Ledges isn’t exactly a racetrack for the timid.

Spring Mountain, on the other hand, is a racetrack for the timid, or at least for the talentless and well-funded, so it’s here that we are given a chance to run some P Zero-equipped Abarths around for a few laps. The front straight of the 3.1 mile course is chicaned, making the top possible speed about 95mph on the back straight. In other words, we’re almost autocrossing. As you’d expect for a 160-horsepower car, the 500 feels almost sleepily slow on-track, although the constant mish-mash of mild off-camber turns helps keep the interest level up.

My concern regarding the 500 as a trackday car had been that the handling would be tamed to keep its very short wheelbase under control. Luckily, that’s not completely the case; the Abarth is free to wag its tail under braking, particularly trail-braking, and through every one of the artificial elevation changes. A few times during my short lapping session, I am caught out by mistaking one slow blind turn for another one, and every time this happens there’s plenty of chatter and slide from the back while I correct my mistake. It’s charming, and it’s fun.

The Abarth’s relatively aggressive camber does manifest itself in a rather numb-feeling wheel during hard acceleration. Nor is the “torque transfer system” a substitute for an actual limited-slip differential — a mistake the Chrysler guys rectified during the 2003-to-2004 model year changes to the Neon SRT-4. Full-throttle corner exits are slightly annoying thanks to the “tunnel vision” caused by the stiffening of the steering and the separate-but-equal brake-driven adjustments to front-wheel traction.

The overall on-track impression is that the FIAT feels bigger than it is. That’s fine, and it’s reassuring, but compared to cars like the current Jetta GLI which seem to shrink on the move, it’s not ideal. Still, you could do a lot worse for your first trackday car.

Among the ad hoc segment known (as of right now) as “Little Retro Cars That Feel Sporty”, the New 500 Abarth is clearly ahead of the VW New New Beetle Turbo but probably a touch behind the New New MINI Cooper S. I wouldn’t expect it to keep ahead of a MINI on a road course or frantic backroad. Consumer Reports occasionally recommends the MINI but has slapped “Not Recommended” ratings on the non-turbo 500 and Beetle. There’s little objective reason to choose the 500 over the MINI.

Luckily for the FIAT/Chrysler folks, this isn’t a segment which operates on rational thought. If it did, none of the entrants in said segment would exist. The pricing is competitive — $22,000 plus destination — and the little Abarth has plenty of virtues, from the way it looks to the way it feels to drive. It seems to be worthy of both the FIAT and Abarth labels. What track rats around the country really want, however, is a small car that is worthy of the SRT label. Something at least as fast as the old SRT-4 Neon, only with enough refinement and interior quality to silence the naysayers. More power than the Caliber SRT-4 in a platform that deserves that power. Something like the, ahem, Dodge Dart. This Abarth is a nice sign of life from the SRT guys, but we aren’t looking for a sign of life; we’re looking for absolute domination. Over to you, gentlemen…

IMG_6028 IMG_6027 IMG_6026 IMG_6025 IMG_6024 IMG_6023 IMG_6022 IMG_6021 Not exactly setting the world on fire. IMG_6019 IMG_6018 IMG_6017 IMG_6016 IMG_6015 IMG_6013 IMG_6012 IMG_6011 IMG_6010 IMG_6009 IMG_5984 Four cylinders, some waiting. Three little birds. IMG_5980 IMG_5979 IMG_5970 IMG_5936 IMG_5935 IMG_5934 I'd love to chat, but I have to go get it in. IMG_5932 Fiat 500 Abarth. All photos courtesy of Jack "Attempted Murder Was The Case That They Gave Me" Baruth IMG_5930 Concentrically lame. IMG_5927 IMG_5926 IMG_5923 IMG_5922 IMG_5921 IMG_5920 IMG_5919 IMG_5918 IMG_5917 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 150
Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge (BCAS Edition) Mon, 31 Oct 2011 17:45:29 +0000

Throw “Sport” on a car, and I’m going to expect certain things from it. So I wasn’t kind to the first FIAT 500 I reviewed. But, as with people, I’m always willing to give a car a second take from a more amenable angle. To avoid bits I didn’t care for, I requested the base-level “Pop” trim with an automatic transmission. Chrysler counter-offered a top-level Lounge. In brown. With brown leather. Not quite what I asked for, but as a member of the Brown Car Appreciation Society (sans card, alas) I felt duty bound to accept.

Dip a 500 in Espresso Metallic and fit it with multi-spoke alloys (a $300 extra), and no one will think it an economy car. The look is as upscale as the Scion iQ’s is not. And this is before opening the door to find seats upholstered in chocolate brown leather, with matching trim on the doors and dash. The ivory steering wheel, upper seatbacks, and control panels provide a classy contrast while keeping the whole from seeming too serious or somber. Most definitely lounge-worthy.


Sadly, all parts of the 500 can’t deliver on this initial impression. Work the manual height adjuster in an attempt to lower the high-mounted seat, and the degree of flex suggests it’s not long for this world. Then again, the seat is so high in its lowest position that few people will ever use this adjuster. The buttons for the HVAC and audio feel very much like those of a sub-$20k car (even though this example wasn’t). Drive down any but the smoothest roads, and the doors constantly scratch against their seals. Perhaps press cars aren’t prepped as thoroughly as conventional wisdom suggests? A few dabs of a suitable lube might have gone a long way.

Thanks to the 500’s unsportily high seating position, the view forward is open. As is the view upward through the Lounge’s standard large fixed glass roof panel (much of the utility of the optional sunroof, without the rattles and leaks). The view rearward, not so much, as the B- and C-pillars are thick and close. But with so little car back there the Luxury Leather Package’s rear obstacle detection is nevertheless pointless. The driver-side spotter mirror is of much more use, enabling fear-free lane changes to the left, even if it does rob some scarce real estate within the mini-compact mirror pods. Whatever the trim level, the ergonomics are, well, Italian. The shifter remains too high and too far forward, but with the automatic this isn’t an issue. Despite the intimate interior, the logic-defying myriad small buttons for the BOSE audio system (thumping sub beneath the passenger seat) are just beyond reach. Would a few large knobs close at hand cramp the 500’s style? The “sport” button is close at hand, but all it does is bump the steering effort without reducing steering numbness and force the transmission to hold gears far too long for casual around-town use. We’re lounging this time around, so absolutely no need for this.

The Lounge’s seat is the same as the Sport’s, but with no clutch requiring frequent full leg extensions the overly prominent under-thigh bulge didn’t bother me. In fact, nothing really bothered me, though my diminutive rear seat occupants did complain about the car’s hard round headrests.

The 500’s 101-horsepower 1.4-liter engine was—surprise—no match for a Ford GT rapidly approaching in my rearview on I-75. Even with the rightmost pedal pressed hard to the floor there’s little thrust at highway speeds. Bill Ford’s supercharged supercar blew by without even realizing I was there. But up to 45 or so there’s easily adequate power. With the Lounge’s mandatory automatic I felt far less need to dispatch the engine anywhere near its redline (though the autobox is more than happy to take it there), and the MultiAir mill sounded much less thrashy as a result. The trip computer reported 33-35 MPG in the suburbs, dipping into the high 20s when my right foot lapsed out of lounge mode. Not bad, but at best a match for the most efficient cars one or two size classes up, despite FIAT’s highly touted throttle-less intake technology. Handling might not be sporty, but it is effortlessly pleasant. And the standard suspension delivers a livable ride, if still a bit choppy and bouncy.

Even if the FIAT 500 Lounge isn’t especially fun to drive, it is nevertheless thoroughly fun (when not hopelessly attempting to match pace with a supercar). The styling is engagingly cute (chics dig it) yet—in brown—also elegant. In Lounge form the car’s easygoing driving character fits. Pulling up to Trader Joe’s with my three chattering progeny, and tight on time, I announced, “All right you clowns, out of the clown car.” My youngest almost died from laughter in the parking lot. That was just the first of four stops on the weekly shopping expedition. Even with all seats occupied, my cargo anxiety heightened by what might well be the world’s smallest cargo cover, and some sale items bought by the dozen, everything fit with room to spare. In the $21,800 500 Lounge BCAS Edition, the entire experience seemed much less of a chore.

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

Whos that knockin at my door Goodbye BCAS 500 rear quarter 2 BCAS 500 rear quarter BCAS 500 interior BCAS 500 instrument panel BCAS 500 front quarter 2 BCAS 500 front quarter BCAS 500 front BCAS 500 cargo 500 view forward 500 instruments 500 engine ]]> 91
Review: 2011 Fiat 500C Convertible Mon, 22 Aug 2011 23:38:47 +0000

Due to the state of the economy and the price of gasoline in America, it’s no small wonder small car sales are on fire. For those that wish to hide the fact that they have downsized for sensible reasons like lower operating costs, there is a segment of the market just for you: small retro cars. While everyone has tried their hand at this game from Chrysler’s PT cruiser, Chevy’s HHR and the continual resurrection of the VW Beetle, nobody seems to have hit the nail as squarely on the head as BMW with their Mini franchise and their 40,000 in yearly sales. What’s the new Italian owner of an American car company and dealer network to do? Sell a “minier” Mini-fighter of course.

Back in ’68 Fiat had a cheeky little car with some crazy windscreen wipers. While the car wasn’t modern, as Samir Syed found out, it was, and still is a hoot in the Italian countryside. In 2007 Fiat resurrected the 500’s soul by putting a retro wrapper on the Fiat Panda and the result is a city car that, like the Mini Cooper, has grown from the original to more American proportions. Back in 2010 Tal Bronfer got his hands on a European 500C and now that the Fiat has landed on our shores Fiat lent us one for a week on the back country roads in the SF Bay Area.

From the outside, the 500C is certainly a cute little car. Perhaps it’s the size (it’s shorter than a Mini Cooper by seven inches), the round headlamps, or the striking red folding soft top, but I haven’t had this many people point and stare at a car; ever. It even garnered more looks than a Jaguar XKR convertible which was described as “sex in automotive form” by one of my passengers. On my daily commute an SUV full of people on their way to the daily grind practically stopped in the carpool lane (causing major traffic disruptions behind them) so they would all whip out their iPhones and take pictures of the topless Italian puttering along in the next lane. If you like being the center of attention, never has the price of admission been this low. Starting at $19,500 for the “Pop” trim and $23,500 if “Lounge” is more your style, this is significantly cheaper than the Mini Cooper convertible. For those without calculators, this is an approximate $4000 premium over the “regular” 500 or a 26% premium to remove your lid. What if the BMW 3 convertible cost 26% more than the coupe? Oh wait, it does. Why do people complain about the cost of the topless Fiat when the Mini convertible is $5450 more expensive and that’s not a “problem”? The answer of course is: brand. But the plucky Italian has a few tricks up its cheap sleeves to add value to this proposition, is that enough? Let’s find out.

Before we get into comparisons, we must stop equating size with price. There’s a new world out there and with new CAFE rules looming, things may be getting smaller, so deal with it. Of course at $19,500, the 500C is the cheapest four-seat convertible in the USA, so it should come as no surprise that interior plastics are not high-rent. They are appropriate for the price tag however, and vs the Cooper-sans-top, the plastics seem fairly competitive especially when you factor in that discount. I might even say the carpet in the Fiat has a slightly more premium look and feel, but this would be counterbalanced by the hard plastic door trim panels inside the 500’s cabin. Our tester wore red and black fabric with a charcoal dashboard, but buyers can opt for a lighter color scheme with an ivory steering wheel and dash that looks decidedly euro-chic.

All Fiat 500Cs sold in the USA have Fiat’s “Blue & Me” system which combines Bluetooth speakerphone integration with some minor voice control of your audio system. If you were expecting SYNC-like iPod or USB control, you will be disappointed with the strange Blue & Me interface. It’s too complicated to explain in print, if you’d like to know more, check out our TTAC Quick Clips video. Our tester came with the $1,250 optional Bose premium audio package which uses six Bose speakers and a very small subwoofer located under the passenger seat. Bose turns out to be the prefect company to handle the audio for the 500 as the subwoofer performed admirably top up or down. With such a small driver in the sub, I estimate 5-inches, if you are into bass heavy music at ear splitting volumes, install your own beatbox.

Out on the road the first thing you notice about the 500C is the over-boosted steering thanks to the electric assist, the second thing you notice is the grip. The 500 is no race car by any stretch, but it does feel as “go-karty” as any base Mini I have driven. As hard as this may be to believe, the Fiat also honestly feels more refined than any Mini on offer. Unlike the topless Brit, the 500C handles almost identically to the hard top 500. This is thanks to that wacky canvas top we haven’t discussed yet. Instead of chopping the entire top off a 500, Fiat decided to remove the rear window and 98% of the roof leaving the B and C pillars as well as the door frames intact. The resulting ginormous hole was plugged by a canvas soft-top that runs on tracks and collapses like a venetian blind on top of the “trunk”. This almost-topless design results in a stiffer chassis and only a 50lb increase in curb weight over the hard top. Speaking of weight, the way the 500 drives is dictated largely by its heft, or lack thereof; at 2416lbs it is lighter than the 2701lb Cooper convertible and this difference is noticeable out on the road.

When the going gets twisty the 500C gives up little to the Cooper, let alone the Cooper convertible, at a tested 9.5 seconds to 60, it may be slower than the 8.9 we clocked in the Cooper ‘vert, but it makes up for the reduced go with a greatly improved ride and grip. On rough twisty roads the topless Cooper feels less settled and far more flexible than the Fiat (a quality I don’t really seek in a convertible). While the “Sport” button in the Fiat helps firm up the steering, it does nothing for the feel which is the only real niggle I found on my trip down California’s windy Highway 35. Being able to raise or lower the top at speeds of up to 60MPH without skipping a beat on a windy country road made me forgive the steering feel. (At speeds up to 60MPH the top can be opened, and up to 50MPH the top and rear window drop to the trunk.)

Motivation of the 500C comes courtesy of a 1.4L 101HP “multiair” engine coupled to your choice of a 5-speed manual or an Aisin-sourced 6-speed auto. Since peak HP is achieved at only 400RPM shy of the 6,900RPM red line, wide-open-throttle is a frequent and pleasant companion. The need to rev the nuts off the 1.4L engine to extract all the horses and the 98 lb-ft of twist means the 5-speed manual is the dance partner of choice for maximum enjoyment. We can thank our lucky stars the jerky “Dualogic” robotized manual didn’t make it to our shores; instead the 6-speed auto (standard on Lounge models) is exactly what you expect out of a slushbox: early upshifts, smooth gear changes and a not quite as much soul as the manual offering.

Aside from being more “balls-out” fun than the automatic equipped 500, the 5-speed manual also delivery significantly better mileage with EPA numbers of 30/38 as compared to 27/32. In our 880 mile week-long review we averaged an admirable 33MPG average. Keeping in mind my daily commute is comprised of rural mountain highways and plenty of idle time while shooting video and still photos, I came away fairly impressed. A 40-mile highway trip on US-101 in moderate traffic yielded an average of 41MPG. As always, your mileage will vary.

Passers-by first wanted to know what this little rag top was; after they found out it was a Fiat they wanted to know whether it had broken yet. There is the problem; deserved or not, Fiat still suffers from a lingering reliability worry in the US. Almost on cue, the folding top gave us cause for concern on day three. Fortunately, the fix was easy and took only two minutes. Unfortunately, the local Fiat dealer was far less than helpful. Even if the 500C’s reliability is stellar, a poor dealer experience could put a serious dent in the small Italian’s debut on our shores. For those that come after me, here’s the issue. The roof’s one-touch feature would not work, the trunk would not open and the rear defroster wouldn’t turn on. A call to the local Fiat dealer resulted in a most worrying conversation: we were told we would need to bring the Fiat in to have it reset, I asked if I could do it, I was told no. Frustrated, I finally explained I was a journalist and “broken Fiat=bad review.” Information began to flow: all I had to do was to hold the open switch for 3 seconds after the roof had fully opened, then close the roof and keep holding for 3 seconds after it had closed. Viola; the Fiat was back to life but my faith in a quality dealership experience was dashed.

At the end of the week I was sad to see the plucky Italian head off into the sunset. At $21,649 as equipped with Sirius SAT radio, Blue & Me, the Bose audio, aluminum wheels and some red vinyl decals, the 500C is still about $10,000 less than the average new car sold in the USA not to mention $5,000 less than a comparably equipped Mini. While it may not have the value that a new Nissan Versa brings to the table, it is far more entertaining to live with. Until the 500 becomes US mainstream, if you want a high gawk factor for low bucks, the 500C is for now the best choice. Since the original 500 was eventually replaced by the Fiat 126, which looked like an Italian Trabant but was called “progress”, raise some vino to the hopes the Nuovo 500 has a long and healthy life.

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Not a fan of our Facebook page? Too bad. For our facebook peeps, here’s what you wanted to know: Chris M: Quite fun, and the mileage is still fairly good while having fun. Chris: The roof is automatic with one-touch. Richard L: No, but I did have an insatiable desire to drive up and down stairs. John L: Yep, the roof stays “folded.” Drew W: Yes, but the chic part is a major attraction. Daniel S: I hate convertibles, but I love this one. Go figure. Anthony G: I wanted more power. Darren W: Got it in one…

Statistics as tested

0-30: 3.0 Seconds

0-60: 9.5 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 17.3 Seconds @ 78MPH

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Capsule Review: 1968 Fiat 500 (595) Esse-Esse Abarth Thu, 11 Aug 2011 19:12:14 +0000

I haven’t been to Italy, in 21 years. My cousins and I are having dinner together for the first time in 21 years. If I didn’t already know it, I’d have learned it now: males with Italian blood are obsessed with cars. My cousin Nicola even works for FIAT, in the seaside town of Termoli.

“Are there Fiats at Chrysler stores in Canada now?” he asks.

“Just the 500,” I inform.

“That’s not the real 500,” says Angelo, his younger brother. Two hours later, we’re in my Nonna’s garage. He pulls the tarp off a stunning, perfectly restored 1968 Fiat 595 SS Abarth. “Quest’è la vera Cinquecento!” he informs me.

The trip from Montreal to Casacalenda, off the Adriatic coast, took 12 hours. My BlackBerry says 11 AM, my body says 5 AM. I haven’t slept in almost 36 hours. I am covered in airport guck. Now, somewhere in the Italian countryside, I’m going to drive a car without power steering, and 4 drums for brakes.

My cousin and I are shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow in the Esse-Esse. The cockpit is dominated by two things: a speedometer and an ashtray. These form perhaps the most succinct depiction that I’ve ever seen of the stereotypical Italian male persona. “Per capire l’Italia, devi guidare la macchina del popolo,” Angelo says. (“To understand Italy, you must drive the people’s car.”)

The roof encroaches upon my head; I have to adopt a Quasimodo-like hunch to get my eyes below the top line of the windshield and actually see out of the car. Obviously, Italians were shorter in the 60s.

I fire it up. It sounds like a cross between a Harley and an AMG V8.

“Il motore fa quanti cavalli?” I ask.


I stall it twice just getting it out of the garage. The throws on the stick are epically long, like a day without bread. The friction point feels like it occurs randomly along the pedal’s journey, at a different point each time. My cousin says this transmission is going to feel different than what I’m used to. No shit.

At first, I’m frustrated. The cobblestone streets give the Fiat a serious case of epileptic tribulations. The town is an interconnected network of tiny, maze-like streets across rolling hills. Every intersection is a new challenge – combining octogenarian pedestrians, elevation changes, and ground effects in varying degrees. Every time we stop, facing uphill, I’m nervous about stalling. I can’t even use the parking brake to cheat, because, well, it’s a 43-year-old car and the parking brake hasn’t worked since Berlusconi’s first term in office.

Eventually, I manage to assemble a decent circuit around the village’s confusing streets. As the laps pile on, and I’m getting used to the car, I feel its personality emerge. I start to understand why Angelo wanted me to drive it.

First, the steering. The wheel is small; rotation requires a more than casual effort. It’s incredibly direct, lively without being twitchy. The front wheels react instantaneously, and bite immediately. It’s actually becoming fun to guide the car through the narrow streets of the old world.

I never fully understood the transmission, but I learned to work with it. Angelo forbade power shifts. He even forbade quick shifts. Everything had to be smooth, gentle, the way a cappuccino goes down on a sunny afternoon. Every time I put the hammer down, the Cinquecento responded enthusiastically, propelling me through the streets and up hills without trouble. Coupled with the sound it made, it was perfect driving nirvana.

Eventually, we left town and hit the mountain roads. We drove the sinewy mountain roads between Larino and Casacalenda. By drive, I don’t mean it in the newer American sense: casually direct a power-assisted-steering, with one hand while the buttery chassis isolates the driver from road’s more interesting features. Here, we drove. We drove with two hands on the wheel, looking not 50 feet beyond us, but 500, to know what we’d have to do. The shifts and revs had to be matched or the car’s performance would suffer. Braking distances had to be respected – there were no discs to save us, let alone ABS. Every curve, every hairpin, was full of excitement and required utmost concentration to execute.

Angelo and I were having the time of our lives. Driving the Fiat here was a man’s game. If you timed everything correctly, the 500’s engine would reward you with a thunderous roar. Driving lines had to consider elevation changes and deterioration. The 12-km drive left me with a profound respect for those who journeyed across this mountainous country in a Cinquecento.

As we pulled in to the garage, I began to reflect on how my experience had improved my understanding of Italy, as Angelo had suggested it would. My mind kept drifting to the VW Beetle, another car that was also una macchina del popolo. The Bug’s status as an automotive icon is beyond dispute; the Cinquecento itself was reverse engineered from the Bug.

However, the Italians understood what was missing from the Beetle. It was all left-brained, a perfectly built-car for a defined purpose. This would never suit the country of Da Vinci, the mathematician who painted the Mona Lisa. The car for il popolo d’Italia had to be more – it had to satisfy the left-brain and inspire the right. Enter la Cinquecento.

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Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport Tue, 05 Apr 2011 17:00:34 +0000
I’ve been waiting 28 years for Fiat to return to the United States, and that means TTAC is going back-to-back on the Fiat 500 coverage, following up Michael Karesh’s review with one of my own.

Me and Fiat, we have a history, see. My parents, already owners of a new Chevrolet Beauville passenger van, bought a pair of new Fiat 128 sedans in 1973. One was pungent green, the other a sort of washed-out yellow, and I knew in my 7-year-old heart that those cars made the best engine noises ever. You had to rev the piss out of that 62-horsepower engine to make the 128 go anywhere, but my mom grew up driving an ice-racing-prepped Porsche 356-engined Beetle and she went for the redline with each shift.

Those 128s crumbled into decrepitude fast, even by the lax standards of the time— my parents stuck with the yellow one for two years and the green one for three before washing their hands of the little Italian machines— but this was a four-door car that sold for $2,299, exactly the list price of the even more miserable and primitive ’73 VW Beetle (do we need to discuss the $2,306 ’73 Datsun 510? I think not). Regardless of the inherent terribleness of the 128 (with its switches that broke off under your fingers, doors that wouldn’t stay latched, and sheetmetal that managed to rust even in Northern California) the racy sound of that Fiat SOHC, more than anything else I recall from my childhood, turned me into a car freak.

Fiat’s fortunes in the United States went straight to hell starting in the late 1970s, as Fiat sales got slugged by relentless competition from cheap and reliable Japanese subcompacts and sports cars, while its “Fix It Again, Tony” brand image among American car shoppers was making the Greco-Italian War look sensible by comparison. Americans recoiled in horror from the new Strada, and Fiat retreated from the continent after the 1983 model year. As a cruel reminder of Fiat’s American glory days, the 124 Sport Spider lurched along, zombie-style, under the Pininfarina banner until 1985, while virtually unsellable Bertone-badged X1/9s were imported by past Subaru and future Yugo mastermind Malcolm Bricklin until 1987.

Yes, that’s Dennis Farina cold blasting a Smith & Wesson-packing California heavy who sneers at his Beretta: “The Fiat of guns. Always jamming on you!” Generations of Americans thought of Fiat as a joke, in spite of the company’s big sales elsewhere in the world, and even those too young to remember being stranded at the side of the road in an overheating Brava have heard the jokes from their elders. Truly, a return of Fiat to the United States could only happen under unusual circumstances, and the first Fiat-badged machine to hit our shores would need to be something special.

Well, the special circumstances are here (who in the hell could have predicted the Fiat-Chrysler deal?) and the 2012 Fiat 500 differs as much from the decline-and-fall models of the 1970s as the 2012 Corolla differs from its wonky, rattly-ass 1970s ancestors. I had a 500 Sport for nearly a week when I visited California to serve in the LeMons Supreme Court at the Sears Pointless 24 Hours of LeMons, and I had the chance to beat on it in the real world of San Francisco Bay Area wet-weather driving as well as the not-so-real world of a LeMons paddock.

Let’s start with the looks of the new 500. Even among Americans old enough to remember new Fiats on the street, the profile of the original 500 is nowhere near as iconic as it is to Europeans. The original 500 sold about as well in the US of A as the Renault Dauphine; i.e., hardly at all. That means that Fiat can’t cash in on a beloved retro image along the lines of the Beetle or Mustang, but it also means that there won’t be much groaning about the new 500 scaling in at over twice the curb weight of the original.

Let’s face it, Americans associate tiny European cars of the postwar era with pessimism. Underemployment. Diminished expectations. American car buyers of the 1950s and 1960s laughed at these cars, though they were actually pretty impressive engineering accomplishments.

The new 500 Sport, however, may appear more Japanese than Italian to American eyes. Note the similarity of profile to the Yaris; sure, some echoes of the cinquecento come through, but you get a lot more Yaris (and Fit) at first glance. Could Chrysler/Fiat have gotten away with bringing in a cheaper, sported-up version of the Panda for its American invasion? I thought so… until I brought the thing to Infineon Raceway.

LeMons racers, many of whom tend to be super-geeked-out automotive obsessives with garages full of Panhards and Sunbeams, went apeshit over the sight of the 2012 500 in the Infineon pits. I figured this Fiat 124 Sport Spider racer would be very happy to pose his car next to the Judgemobile in the Penalty Box after his black flag, and such turned out to be the case. Note the size of the 2012 Fiat relative to the 1977 Fiat.

Still, the juxtaposition of old and new Fiat highlights the reduced “Italian-ness” of the newer car’s appearance. The 124 Spider was, by any but the most delusional standards, a punitively awful machine, down there in the build-quality mud with the comprehensively bad Triumph Spitfire, but it looked cool!. The new 500 looks cool, too, but the only strong reaction I got with mine outside of Infineon was from the gearhead kid in the Bondo-and-primer Alfa Milano who nearly plowed into a bus stop while rubbernecking at the Fiat. For the most part, the 500 just blended in.

Still, I kept posing the 500 with various Italian classics at the track, hoping I’d spot the spiritual link. Was it there? I couldn’t see it, but the car definitely grabbed the attention of hopeless car nerds knowledgeable automotive enthusiasts in this context. Everywhere the 500 went at Infineon, LeMons racers would drop their tools, mid-engine-swap, to check out the new Fiat. This meant that I had the opportunity to make humans of all sizes try to fit in the front and rear seats. A 6′ 4″ Alfa Romeo driver fit fairly well in the front of the sunroof-equipped 500; without the sunroof, a taller driver should fit just fine. Folks up to 5′ 8″ had sufficient room in the back seat, and TTAC Editor-In-Chief Ed Niedermeyer managed to ride 50 miles with his 6-foot frame squeezed into the back; he wasn’t comfortable, but it worked.

Here’s Judge Jonny at the wheel of the Sears Pointless 24 Hours of LeMons Semi-Official Pace Car. Mr. Lieberman liked the tip-in of the 500 and was pleased to lead the parade of 173 heaps around the famed track.

Back in the real, i.e. non-LeMons world, I still thought the 500 looked pretty good in spite of its lack of look-at-that passerby-grabbing magnetism. The Sport wheels have a quasi-custom appearance, without crossing the line into Manny, Moe, and Jack-grade cheeze, and the 195/45-16 tires look good and meaty on such a small car.

The interior of the 500 is made of unapologetically cheap materials, with none of the mock-classy “chrome”-plated plastic or Simu-Wood™ trim so beloved by Detroit in years past. Had the Chrysler of ten years ago had anything to do with this car, I feel certain its interior would have been spackled over with as much greasy, casting-flash-laden plastic as the lowest of low-bidder Indonesian petrochemical companies could have pumped into tanker vessels. Today, as Ice-T would say, shit ain’t like that. This is a cheap small car, and it’s not being marketed as a consolation prize for losers who couldn’t afford a new Chrysler Concorde; it’s made for buyers who want a little gas-sipping commuter with something of a sporty edge.

Nothing very exciting to report on the controls and instrumentation; this is all bland and reasonably well-placed gear. I poked around a bit under the dash and found that the quality of switches and electrical connectors looked fairly decent. I can’t make any promises based on my short acquaintance with the car, but it appears that the dash controls should hold together much longer than their counterparts from the Bad Old Days of Fiat.

The body-color plastic dash insert added a touch of motorcycle-fuel-tank-style snazz to the interior, and it should be easy to clean when passengers experience fast-food mishaps (or worse). I’m skeptical about its ability to maintain its color after a few years of sun in Albuquerque or San Diego, but who cares? It’s a cheap small car!

It’s just refreshing to see such lack of pretense in a car interior’s surfaces these days, even in a subcompact. You put this stuff through an American focus group and they’ll always demand heraldic crests and gingerbread, so it’s good to see that Fiat and Chrysler ditched that nonsense for the USDM 500.

Look at this: no attempt made to camouflage the seat-mounting hardware! Just about all cars at the low end of the price spectrum for the last 20 years have had a crappy hunk of plastic that snaps over the ends of the seat-track brackets, where it spends several years collecting nasty schmutz and developing cracks, before working loose and generally making the car owner feel that this machine is disintegrating. Not so on the 500, which doesn’t fear showing the occasional bolt head. It’s a small thing, but I find it illustrative.

The Bose Premium Audio system that comes with the Sport package fills up the 500′s little cabin with brain-scrambling volume, thumping out bass quality that would impress Tigra and Bunny; I found that Mike Jones’ Still Tippin’ sounded incredibly good when cranked way, way up. Pantera wasn’t quite as impressive, so it appears that the system was engineered with hip-hop rather than metal in mind (though I’m sure that enough twiddling with the somewhat frustrating audio controls could have done justice to Dimebag Darrell’s sound).

Speaking of frustration, I had a tough time reading the tachometer at a glance; it appears that Fiat took a look at the instrument budget and went all-out for style over function. The tach needle is tiny and hard to see, and seems to fall behind engine reality at times. I found myself hitting the rev limiter when the tach indicated I still had 500 RPM to go. Not a big deal, since it’s the sort of thing a driver adjusts for after a few weeks in the car, and understandable given the low cost of the car… but this is one area I’d prefer straight-up function.

And, now that we’ve veered off into curmudgeonly complaints, I hope that Fiat’s enforcers pour some castor oil down the throats of their owner’s-manual tech writers. Take a look at the callout numbers in the manual…

…and now check out the corresponding entries for those items. See how they don’t match up? I’m a technical writer by trade, and it causes me physical pain to see something this easy get screwed up. If your organization misses this stuff, what else has it missed? However, I suspect that this is just a localization glitch, caused by a hurried Americanization of the UK-market 500 manual, and that the 500s rolling out of the showrooms will have more usable manuals.

Returning to the 500′s interior, we see the no-frills seat fabric in action here. Cheap stuff, not pretending to look expensive. It ought to hold up under the rigors of real-world use pretty well, given that it isn’t weakened by pleather piping, fake buttons, or embossing.

The only thing I really disliked about the interior was the headrest design. The headrests are hard, unforgiving plastic with a tortilla-thin layer of padding. If you tend to sprawl out lowrider-style with your head against the headrest while driving, as I do, you’ll find your dome gets quite a beating when going over road irregularities. I’m sure there’s cheap aftermarket padded covers available, preferably something suitably blinged-out, so it’s not a dealbreaker by any means.

As you’d expect in such a small car, cargo space is somewhat limited. I found that my big suitcase with my helmet and racing suit had to ride in the back seat; the seat backs fold down, but don’t manage to get fully horizontal. Most of the interior space goes to the passengers, not cargo.

USB and auxiliary audio jacks in the glovebox allow the use of portable music devices through the 500′s sound system. The interface isn’t particularly intuitive (forget about browsing your iPod through the USB-connected stereo and hoping to find a particular song), but you can play your music.

Before we start talking about driving the 500, I feel the need to point out my disappointment that the Fiat 500 by Gucci isn’t available in the United States. Sure, we’re getting the Abarth, but the country that loved the Cartier Continentals and Oleg Cassini Matadors deserves a Gucci Fiat!

First of all, I was impressed by the 500′s composure on potholed, flooded, washboardy roads in bad weather conditions. While touring the junkyards of the East Bay (where I found this ’52 Buick Super), I subjected the 500 to the decaying infrastructure of East Oakland.

It doesn’t insulate you from the bumps like you’re Frank Sinatra floating in an Imperial with a French 75 in your hand, but it sure as hell doesn’t jar your cerebellum loose from its moorings when you discover that little puddle is really a foot-deep pit. You feel and hear the rough roads through just enough insulation to keep from being beaten up, and there’s never a sense that you’re about to be hurled into the weeds.

Heavy rain on the dreaded Nimitz Freeway? No problem. The 500 rolls right along on the highway with as little drama as cars twice its bulk. While I had the 500, I traveled hundreds of miles of highway in wet and dry road conditions, and the car proved to be a pleasant highway cruiser. Noise levels aren’t bad— you can carry on a conversation in a normal speaking voice at 80 MPH— and the car copes with Nimitz-style roughness without wearing out the driver.

The 101-horse MultiAir engine… well, it’s an engine. Somehow the 101 horsepower in the 2,350-pound 500 feels much less powerful than the 102 horsepower in my 2,200-pound ’92 Civic. I must admit I was hoping for an experience akin to what I recall from the ’73 128 of my childhood, an engine that snarls, making 101 horses feel like 202. Instead, the 1.4 MultiAir is just an unobtrusive, sensible powerplant. Would I be disappointed in a Toyota or Hyundai subcompact with an engine like this? Not at all. I just wanted something more… Italian.

The chrome-cueball gearshift knob looks jaunty, but the shifter itself has an irritatingly vague, indistinct feel. There was something familiar about its short-throw-yet-rubbery sensation, and I sifted my memory banks for days before it hit me: it feels like the shifter in the early VW Vanagon. I stalled the car a few times when mistakenly starting out in third gear, and I lived in fear of hitting second instead of fourth when downshifting from fifth (in fact, this never happened). I wouldn’t class this as a severe problem, because you’d get used to the funky shifter in the same way Fiat drivers of old got used to a headlight switch that had to be punched several times with the heel of one’s hand before the lights would come on. Were I to buy a 500, however, I’d look to the aftermarket for an improved shifter.

For the first few days I had the 500, all my driving was either stop-and-go urban, long-haul highway, or slow cruising around the Infineon Raceway grounds with all the windows down and “Funkytown” blasting. The car seemed like a good value, something I could be happy with as a long-term daily driver, but nothing about it really seemed exceptional. I managed to get 32.7 indicated miles per gallon in a mix of highway and stop/go driving, which seems respectable for a car that doesn’t compromise much on comfort, but I wasn’t quite blown away by the fuel economy. “You need to put it in Sport mode and take it on some twisty roads,” Lieberman kept telling me. With that vanilla engine, I figured, how much fun could it be?

As I discovered once I took the 500 for a couple of runs over the Oakland Hills on Fish Ranch Road after the race, the 500 Sport is plenty fun once you get it alone on a snaky, hilly road. You still don’t get much zip from the engine, but the 500′s grip on the pavement borders on ridiculous for a gas-sipping urban commuter. Sneakers-stuck-to-melting-asphalt sort of grip. Angry-cat-digging-claws-into-your-groin grip. I wasn’t talented brave enough to try to find the car’s handling limits, at least not on a public road still wet from a week of rain, but I did start to wonder what the ideal purpose for such a setup would be. A driver looking for a bomb to go screaming around the hills is going to shop for something with more engine, but a 9-to-5 commuter doesn’t need that racy suspension.

Then, while making a burrito run later in the day, I grasped the genius of the 500 Sport’s designers. This car was designed to steal parking spaces in hostile urban environments. Picture this: you’re running late for an appointment in some nightmarishly parking-challenged place like San Francisco or Manhattan. You drive around block after block, trying to spot the telltale signs of a pedestrian who will duck into a car and free up a space for you. Dozens of other drivers do the same, as all of you circle sharklike, sniffing for blood in the water.

Then you see it! An oil-burning Jetta with a space-saver spare on the left front and a 350-pound junkie at the wheel is wheezing out of a spot up ahead… but it’s on the wrong side of the street and another shark heading toward you has locked onto this tempting prey. That’s when the 500 Sport comes into its element! You whip the Fiat into a full-throttle U-turn— tires glommed to the asphalt like a crackhead on a dropped $20 bill— as the car pivots like a forklift through its tiny turning radius, and you’re into that damn parking space before your competition can even hit the turn signal. You look so cool doing it that the other driver forgets to shoot you, and you make your appointment. That’s what the 500 Sport is for.

So the 500 comes off as a great-handling, semi-fuel-stingy commuter with a good helping of fancy flourishes and retro lines that will likely be lost on Americans with sub-encyclopedic car knowledge. Build quality seems many, many orders of magnitude better than the Fiats of a generation ago. The price? As tested, $19,000. A grand of that was for the sunroof and the automatic HVAC system, but even without those not-quite-essential options, the 500 Sport costs a bit more than a Honda Fit sport hatchback and a few grand more than the Mazda 2 and Toyota Yaris. Things get even more interesting when the Scion IQ hits the showrooms. Would I buy a 500? Maybe… but I’d want to visit the Mazda showroom first.

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(Long) Review: Brazilian 2011 New Uno Sporting 1.4 (Plus Report On New Two-Door Uno) Sun, 20 Mar 2011 09:02:57 +0000

Last month, as reported by our ever so excellent Matt Gasnier, there was a minor earthquake in Brazil. For the first time in a blue moon, a car other than the VW Gol stood at the top of the heap. That car was the new Fiat Uno. In this ongoing battle to the death (mind you, the rivalry Fiat X Volkswagen is akin to the heated relations between Ford and Chevy of yore) new weapons and tactics are unveiled at all times. Fiat just disclosed their new guns: the new Uno two-door and the Sporting line.

As I told all of you a while back, Fiat has problems to produce the quantities the Brazilian market demands. One thing they did was to close the factory for a little over two weeks back in December and January for some refurbishments. Using some of the money allotted for investments in Brazil and some very clever packaging (whoever has visited the factory can see how space is at a premium), they are now prepared to produce up to 800 000 cars in Betim. This is up from 700 000, but a year ago. They will now cut back on those 20 000 backlogged cars.

This move has also created space for Fiat to finally launch the 2-door version. This will allow them to charge a little less. In Brazil, traditionally, 2-door cars sells for R$1,500 to R$2,000 less than the 4-door version. That is a lot of dough for cash-strapped Brazilians (I wonder when all the wealth everybody is saying Brazil is creating/capturing will reach the hands of the masses…) and will bring the Uno into the reach of even larger number of consumers. Who, by the way, have not shown any wane in their desire to buy the Uno. The Uno is, a year later, still the it car for this segment which is about 50 percent of the Brazilian market. The Uno two-door undercuts by almost that exact traditional spread the four-door. Fiat asks (and gets) R$26.490 for the basic Vivace version. The four-door in the exact same guise will run my fellow countrymen back by R$28.140. A two door will be available in all different trims the Uno comes in. To wit, the Uno Vivace 1.0, the Uno Way 1.0, the Uno Attractive 1.4, the Uno Way 1.4 and the all new Uno Sporting 1.4.

For those Brazilians with a little extra money to spare, Fiat is offering the Sporting trim level. It is the cream of the crop really of the line. In Brazil, all makers charge the hell out of optional equipment. And just so you know, optional equipment in this segment of the market includes power steering, A/C, power windows (all of which more and more Brazilians, thankfully, can’t live without), not to mention such things as air-bags or ABS brakes (which are not offered by all makers for their cars in this segment). So, the further you climb up the trim lines, the more equipment you get for relatively less cash. By the time you get to the Sporting version, you’ll be paying R$32.170 for the two door, and almost 2000 more for the four-door (R$33.970). Of course, makers play this game all around the world. It is entirely possible to option out the basic 1.0 Vivace with so many things that it’ll cost more than the top-of-the-line Sporting version. Of course, this makes no sense. And that is because even if you check all the boxes for the Vivace you won’t get some of the special equipment available only for the higher trim levels.

So, what do you get for anteing up that much more money to get the top of the line? Well, basically you get a lowered suspension (2 cm less, this and all numbers ahead supplied by Brazilian car rag Quatro Rodas’ website), a thicker front sway bar, more rigid coil springs, which all help you through the twisties quicker. You also get a thicker torsion beam out in the back, which helps the car suffer less torsion. This also get you through those twisties faster. You also get better and bigger alloy rims and tires (185/60/15), which also, of course, help out there in the…you get the drill. What you don’t get is a re-worked engine. It’s the same 1.4 present in other versions. It is good for 88 ponies on ethanol and slightly less on Brazilian gas (with a 30 percent ethanol content). Fiat was good enough though to at least provide new hydraulic engine mounts.

What does all of this mean, you ask me. Well it means the car does drive better. The new engine mounts do filter some of the rashness out of the engine (which is different from the one found in the US-spec 500, which was reviewed by our own Michael Karesh ). I barely felt any difference in the lowered suspension. The extra grip I experienced I credited to the bigger tires and bars.

On a purely cosmetic level, the Uno Sporting offers more than the rest of the line. This is what makes it a better deal than the rest of the line (specially the attractive 1.4). Externally you get darkened head lamps, smoked back-lights, a front spoiler, a wing in the back, and (false) dual exhaust tips. Internally, among other less important things, you get A/C, power steering, leather on steering wheel, power windows. You also get an exclusive fabric for the seats (with the Sporting logo etched on to them), exclusive instrument cluster. As the car I drove also came with all extras, it had the good looking factory radio (with mp3 and USB ports), ABS and frontal air-bags.

My friend, who lent me his brand new car for this review, ordered the special Exclusive Kit, which added to his car a bi-colored leather steering wheel, rugs with Sporting logo, orange-colored fabric for seats and doors and a gray dashboard finishing. Though I like the seats and doors, I prefer the piano black, the carbon fiber look alike or the aluminum imitation central dashboard finishing available at other trim levels.

Oh yeah. The drive.

It’s a small car. Short wheelbase. This means it jumps around a little (or a lot depending on your views of cars) on bad roads. Now, I have a long experience driving and owning small cars. My conclusion is that it’s better than my present Fiat Palio (by a good margin), and better than most of the competition in Brazil. Probably only the Gol can really run with it. Maybe the old Ford Fiesta (if it was using the 1.6 engine). Brazilian cars are jacked up to confront our terrible road conditions, though this car is factory-lowered, I didn’t find that it made a difference. It rides like other 1.4 new Unos I’ve driven. Well, maybe acceleration is a little sluggish-er than on the other models, but that’s due to the bigger 15 inch rims. It’s barely perceptible, but it is slower off the line. But those tires and specially the wider contact with the asphalt make it better in the curves. Like all Fiats I’ve driven of late, the suspension is much more supple than a VW’s or Honda’s , but it manages to avoid boredom. Limits are high, but you have to trust the car to reach them. The cars warns you by screeching tires a little and fighting back a little, which most interpret as the car having reached its limit. However, I’ve found that at that point you can still push the car a little and it’ll settle down before really hitting the limit.

Feel of the pants measurements put it from 0-100 km in a little over or at 13 seconds. Top speed I got to was 162 km/h measured by the GPS (the velocimeter at that time was indicating 174 km/h). It felt like it could give a little more, but I ran out of road. And the car is brand-new, too, so both these numbers should improve with time. Now, getting to that speed is another matter. It gets to 100 even 110 km/h quickly, but then it gets faster less progressively. At 120 km/h (highway speed in Brazil) the engine is quite loud with the RPMs going at 3.600. Push it though and by the time the car gets to 140 km/h it has settled down. It feels happier though at between 100 to 120 km/h. At 140 km/h it still felt planted and confident, but the front end started feeling a little loose at 150 km/h. Again the car’s limit are pretty high for a 1.4 L engine and such a short wheelbase.

Noise levels are adequate and in fact better than other Fiat products. I guess the bean counters have not started the strippo process. Get it while it’s hot folks!

The design is excellent. To my eyes it’s a beautiful car, in a handsome way. Like I said elsewhere, what at first appears gimmicky, all the square lines, make sense in person (even more than in pictures). Those hard straight lines are softened by curves at the ends. And all the lines seem to be in the right place and to serve a purpose. The only excess I can see is that maybe the headlights don’t need the fuss on their outside edge, but it’s there to create visual interest and, again, break off the square lines. Inside the design follows a circular theme. An interesting contrast from the outside. Plastics are very meh (for Americans), but better than average as to what Brazilians usually find in the segment.

The driving position is great. I found myself very comfortable in those seats. You sit in them higher than in a VW Gol, but not as high as in a minivan. I find that this position gives you a good view of the road and is not as tiring as the hunkered down position so prevalent today (I’m looking at you 2nd generation Scion xB or Chevy Camaro!). It is even more comfortable than in my Palio (a car I have mentioned several times on this site that seems to fit me like no other), which surprised me. The steering wheel though is just a little “crooked”. The left side of it seems to project a hair more forward than the right side. When I began to see these cars and sit in them, I never noticed it. However, other journalists started pointing this out. I admit it’s there (now that I went looking for it), but to criticize that seems like unwarranted snobbery in a segment in which the Gol’s pedal continue unaligned (and people don’t protest) with the seats and such things as Chevy’s Celta completely unnatural seating position get a free pass. BTW, the Celta’s seating is so weird it never ceases to amaze me that people claim to adapt to it. The instruments seem well placed. General ergonomics seem quite good.

The driving position helps visibility, which is also very good. Well, maybe behind they could have added some windows in the C pillar or made it thinner. But it’s not as bad as in my wife’s Logan or my boss’s Corolla. Anyway parking this car is easy. The factory back-up sensors present in the car are of course unnecessary in such a small car, but made the parking that much more fool-proof.

For families (and make no mistake about it, this car carries out family duties in Brazil) the trunk is about average for the segment. It can hold 280 or 290 L of baggage as the back seats can be reclined. That volume is about average for this segment in Brazil. It’s a tight fit, but it’ll hold the baggage of mom and pop plus two kids for the annual pilgrimage, I mean vacation!, at the beach (just don’t try to bring that beach ball inflated).

So, I liked the car. I respect the direction Fiat is going. Of course a bigger engine would do wonders for it (and Fiat just might oblige fitting its 1.6 16v E-tor.Q engine into a future version). But, as it stands, it’s economic, zippy in the city, frisky on the highway and highly adapted to Brazilian daily grind in traffic. Its success is deserved and I can understand why Brazilians are willing to wait in line to get their paws on one.

As to ‘soul’, a subject that proved quite controversial in the comments section of Michael Karesh’s Fiat 500 review, I’ll say this. I bonded with the car immediately. I found a good seat and enjoyed the ride. I enjoyed looking at it. But it’s heavier than Fiats of yesteryear. It had expensive and complicated machinery like A/C and air bags that add complexity and weight. It attends modern safety requirements. It was fun. But to find the soul I”d have to dig deeper. Keep it and drive it for more than one day. I’ll say this, if it doesn’t have soul, like the 500, it has plenty of character. Which maybe is the closest to soul you can get in a modern car. Maybe today’s cars are just to good to have soul. We all know perfection is cold.

Well then, that’s my review. You don’t have to take my word for it. If you don’t want to take mine, maybe you’ll take my friend’s. The car’s proud owner. He “came down” from a VW Polo to get the Uno. I asked him why he was downgrading. He said that at a year and half old the Polo is noisier than the Uno. And it shouldn’t be if you drink manufacturers’ kool-aid or the ‘unbiased’ opinion of the press. Supposedly the Polo is so superior. He said in fact it’s not. He said he sees little difference in the drive. Of course the Polo outperforms the Uno (as it has 20 more horses), but it doesn’t do it in an entertaining way. Besides, the Uno attracts all the right kind of attention (girls), but no undue attention (cops and kidnappers). You see, my friend is single, but cautious. And loaded. Trust me, he could buy any car he wanted to in the Brazilian market (German lux barges and Italian super prancing horses included). If the little Uno has quality enough to attract such a guy, it has qualities enough for me.

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Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport (US-Spec) Fri, 18 Mar 2011 19:05:38 +0000

It’s been over a quarter-century, so perhaps my memory grows hazy. But I recall enjoying the small, light subcompacts of the mid-1980s tremendously. They didn’t have much power. Power wasn’t a requirement, just a willingness to rev and to be tossed sideways through curves. I’ve spent the years since trying to recapture that experience. And failing. Too much mass. Too much tire. Even too much refinement. But FIAT’s not famed for refinement. And, at 2,363 pounds, the reborn 500 (pronounced “cinquecento”) is a quarter-ton lighter than today’s compacts. So perhaps my search is over?

Styling is clearly a FIAT 500 strength. Back in the mid-1990s I spent some time inside GM’s Design Center as part of the research for my thesis. At the time every brand and model had a few words that were supposed to capture its essence. I pointed out to the designers that “cute and friendly,” sought by my wife and others with similar tastes, wasn’t being provided by ANY of their many brands or models. They replied, at least half-seriously, that “GM doesn’t do cute and friendly.” Well, the 500 does, and then some. Not only is the car terribly cute, but the design is very well executed. The proportions are perfect and there’s not a curve out of place.

The interior is similarly chock full of character, with an oversized speedometer and body-color trim spanning the dash. Materials, certainly a cut or two above those Americans expect from FIAT, are nearly a match for those in the MINI Cooper.

The new FIAT 500 rides on a 90.6-inch wheelbase and is only 139.6 inches long, in both cases about a half-short less lengthy than the MINI. A member of the European A-segment, this is the smallest four-seater the American market has seen in some time. Yet the 500 has more space than the MINI within its back seat—at 5-9, I can fit, if with little room to spare. More cargo volume as well—30 cubes (vs. 24) with the rear seat folded. Magic? No—the 500 is 59.8 inches tall, four more than the MINI and approaching crossover territory. This additional height translates to a much higher driving position than you’ll find in a MINI—or in those cars that thrilled me back in the 1980s. With the seats so high legs don’t need to extend as far forward. The front seat cushions are size XXS and their shape applies far too much pressure mid-thigh even for people with short legs (30-inch inseam here).

While a turbocharged 170-horsepower “Abarth” variant is in the pipeline, at launch only one engine is available, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder good for 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 98 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000. But wait, there’s (allegedly) more: this is the first engine offered in North America with FIAT’s much-hyped “MultiAir” valve control system. By more flexibly controlling the intake valves, this system promises up to 10 percent more peak power, up to 15 percent more low-end torque, up to 25 percent better fuel economy, and up to 60 percent fewer emissions. Given these gains, FIAT claims to have achieved a game-changing breakthrough. (With which they “paid” for a big chunk of Chrysler.)

Then the rubber meets the road. MultiAir provides the most benefit under low engine loads. (I’d say “with small throttle openings,” but with MultiAir there’s no throttle.) Well, even though the 500 weighs very little by today’s standards, the 1.4 struggles to motivate it. Below 4,000 rpm there’s no power. Above 4,000 rpm there’s not much more. So WOT, or close to it, is the typical operating mode, and whatever benefits MultiAir provides are forfeited. As long as I can shift for myself I don’t need much power, but I do need a willingness to rev and, ideally, a zing in the process. Perhaps because of all the extra bits in the valvetrain, the 1.4 doesn’t care to rev and growls unhappily when forced to.

Shifts aren’t satisfying, either. A high-mounted shifter might work in a cargo van, but in a hatchback with sporting pretensions it’s no joy. One didn’t work in the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, and it doesn’t work here. The lever’s somewhat clunky operation wouldn’t be welcome even in a cargo van.

With a low curb weight and a small MultiAir engine, the 500’s fuel economy ought to be stellar. But it’s not. The EPA ratings of 30 city and 38 highway are roughly matched, even exceeded, by some much larger, much more powerful compacts—none of which have MultiAir. And that’s with the five-speed manual. With the six-speed manually-shiftable Aisin automatic, the 500 only manages 27/34. To be fair, the similarly torque-free 1.5-liter four in the similarly light Mazda2 does even worse (29/35 with the manual and 27/33 with a four-cog automatic). But the differences between the two don’t begin to justify the hype surrounding MultiAir. Maybe the benefits will be more evident with a larger engine that doesn’t have to work so hard?

My expectations (or at least hopes) were highest with the 500’s handling. But the high seating position takes a predictable toll. Steering reactions aren’t especially quick. A Mazda2 feels friskier, a MINI more dialed-in and direct. Tossable the 500 is not. Instead, it tries too hard to behave like a larger car. Like the Ford Fiesta, it’s tuned for people who want the appearance of a small, cute car but not the feel of one.

Sadly, and unlike the Ford, what was achieved with the handling was not achieved with the ride. Even the smallest bumps dramatically upset the diminutive FIAT’s composure. The lightly loaded rear end never passes up an opportunity for a game of hopscotch. Granted, I drove the Sport variant, but if the ride is so unsettled that carving a clean line through a less than glass-smooth curve becomes a challenge, then there’s really no point in making the suspension so firm. Of the many cars in my memory bank, including the thoroughly unrefined Mazda Protege5 I own, this one rides the worst. The non-Sport would have to be an order of magnitude less jumpy to not constantly irritate those within it. Hopefully they’ll be able to better sort the suspension for the Abarth, for a 170-horsepower turbocharged four would be a terrible waste in this chassis as-is.

To give credit where credit is due, noise levels within the 500 are bearable, if those of a small car. Despite its low weight, the 500 feels considerably more solid than a Mazda2, if not quite so much as a German-engineered MINI. To put it bluntly, the car doesn’t seem cheap.

Nor is it, with the Sport checking in at $18,000. Still, this is within a few hundred dollars of a similar Ford Fiesta (a larger but less stylish car) and over $6,000 below a comparably equipped Cooper. Adjust for the Brit’s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the FIAT’s price advantage remains about $4,500.

The big question mark, given FIAT’s history, is of course reliability. With the first cars just now arriving at dealers, it’s too soon to say one way or the other. But TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey was designed to provide reliability stats on new models sooner, so perhaps by the end of the year (depending on how soon enough owners participate). You’ll see those results here at TTAC as soon as we have them.

As should be clear by now, the FIAT 500 isn’t the car I’ve been seeking for the past quarter-century. It does nothing especially well and a few things badly. But it’s so endearingly cute that even a MINI appears staid in comparison. Initial sales should be strong. But what about after everyone smitten by the styling buys one? And will the love survive a few months of living with the ride? Roger Penske went down this road not long ago. Ask him how it turned out.

Car provided by Golling FIAT

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data

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