The Truth About Cars » Cinquecento The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 18 Jul 2014 20:52:49 +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 » Cinquecento Chicago Auto Show: 2014 Fiat 500L Thu, 07 Feb 2013 23:21:46 +0000

What happens when foreigners have been in America for a few years? They start getting fat like Americans. And so it is with the 2014 Fat 500L which has gained mass, two doors and a plumper overall visage. We found a red model strutting its chunky stuff at the back of the Chicago Auto Show For some reason we weren’t allowed inside, but we were able to caress it through the open windows.

Fiat kept referring to the 500L as some sort of MINI Clubman competitor, but I tend to think only shoppers of the Countryman CUV will be looking at the larger Fiat. On the outside the 500L looks slightly overinflated with suspicious looking bulges everywhere. The inside is a different story however with interior bits that put MINI to shame. Not that they are overly luxurious but MINI’s parts bin is a hard plastic wonderland.

Fiat says the 500L will be front wheel drive only for the moment, although the rumor mill indicates the platform has been designed with AWD in mind. The same 1.4L turbo engine from the 500 Abarth is found under the hood giving the baby crossover 160HP and 184lb-ft of twist. Also on board is a 6-speed manual or Fiat’s dual dry clutch transmission. Infotainment options are also taking a step in the right direction bringing Chrysler’s slick uConnect system to an optional 6.5-inch touch scree in the dash. I spent some time playing with the display system and it looks to be better in my opinion than MINI’s rendition of iDrive and light-years ahead of what’s in the current 500. So far, nobody is talking pricing.

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Ask The Best And Brightest: Who Killed The Fiat 500 Launch? Mon, 21 Nov 2011 21:33:44 +0000

With today’s official confirmation that Fiat’s US market brand boss, Laura Soave, has been replaced by Timothy Kuniskis, there’s more than a little attention being paid to the Fiat 500′s stateside sales and marketing. Which is something of a curious state of affairs; after all, when the 500 was introduced to Europe, it was quite well-received by the press and public. In hopes of tracking down some kind of explanation for this discrepancy, I hit Youtube looking for ads introducing the Fiat 500 to European markets. The first spot I found can be seen above, and it encapsulates how I feel the 500 probably should have been introduced to the US: with one simple, smart, timeless ad. Instead we got a flurry of disjointed, uncoordinated efforts, with Jennifer Lopez eventually dominating the Cinquecento‘s image almost by default. Could this explain why the 500′s US sales have disappointed?

If so, it’s not entirely clear that Ms Soave is to blame for the debacle. Here, she talks up precisely the values encapsulated in the immensely successful UK ad, and shows off some print ads that seem to deliver similarly timeless messages. But remind me again, who reads print ads? As for the entire “drive-in” concept, I’d hazard that idea had its genesis with Impatto, the since-dumped, event-focused marketing firm that helped lead the 500 launch. Clearly it was not the memorable TV ad that the 500 needed, and clearly Soave should have thought twice about an event-focused launch, especially one centered on such a spurious “urban fad.” But the “drive-in” ads were merely weak; what has dominated perceptions of the 500 in the US is Jennifer Lopez.

And, as we’ve mentioned before, the celeb-happy, J.Lo-synonimizing aspect of the campaign apparently came from Chrysler’s marketing honcho Olivier Francois, not Soave. Back in September, when Fiat was dumping Impatto, AdAge reported

“I respect what she [Ms. Soave] did so far. I may have my opinions about the brand, and they are well known so I’m not going to get into anything here,” said Mr. Francois. “But when you are working with limited resources, you have to invent some out-of-the-box stuff which I am trying to do.”

One out-of-the-box play was working with Ms. Lopez on what former auto-marketing exec Peter DeLorenzo called “quite possibly the worst automotive spot of the last decade, hands down.” Mr. Francois defended the push and said it was not a commercial at all but rather a “trailer” for Ms. Lopez’s new video for the single “Papi.” Mr. Francois said it came about after a discussion he and his friend Ms. Lopez had with her manager Benny Medina, in which they talked about having the Fiat 500 used as the car featured in the chase sequence of the video. Afterward, Mr. Francois said he asked Mr. Medina for the footage and said Fiat would put together a 30-second trailer for the video

Francois is already well-known for his commitment to unabashedly over-the-top marketing, including the Eminem “Imported From Detroit” ads, which do seem to have been more effective than the J.Lo experiment. At the time he defended early negative reaction to the initial Lopez shot by calling it a “trailer.” Of course, the reaction hasn’t improved with the full ads, and negativity hit a breaking point last night, in the wake of Lopez’s 500-themed AMA performance. Clearly Francois’ gamble on Lopez’s starpower has fallen flat, and it would be shocking to see any further collaboration between the two…. and yet Soave, who apparently has had nothing to do with the Lopez decision, is the one being replaced. Why? Well, Francois is close to the big boss, Sergio Marchionne, and worked with him well before the Chrysler takeover. Don’t believe the J.Lo ads had Francois’s French fingers all over them? Check out this Lancia spot he approved a few years back:

In fact, using celebrities on the cheap is something of a well-worn tactic for Francois. AdAge explains

Mr. Francois coyly said he does not like to use “spokespeople.” But his two ever-present BlackBerrys run deep with celebrities who have appeared in his ads: Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Richard Gere and even the Dalai Llama. Of those, only Mr. Gere took a fee, and it was for his charity. Even Eminem sold Chrysler rights to his song for 20% of what he could have gotten just to be part of the ad. Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody directed a Chrysler ad late last year, his commercial directing debut, and voiced the ad as well.

That might work passably when your job is to cheaply up the image of staid, older brands like Chrysler or Lancia. When it comes to launching a unique, fashion-forward car like the 500, you have to let the car speak for itself. As Soave herself put it, “the car is always the hero.” Too bad she failed to explain that to her bosses.

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Fiat 500 Marketing Watch: Re-Boot In The Works? Mon, 21 Nov 2011 18:57:58 +0000

After an early downturn in sales, it appeared that Fiat might be distancing its 500 from the Jennifer Lopez-dominated image that hasn’t been panning out so well. With the debut of the 500 Abarth at the LA Auto Show, the ad shown above kept the sex-factor high, but focused far more on the male market. Perhaps sensing a shift in direction, Bloomberg asked Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne last week if the brand’s boss Laura Soave would be keeping her job despite the weak sales. Still undecided, Marchionne replied in the affirmative

For the time being.

That was last Wednesday. Over the weekend, something seems to have changed…

Last night, Ms Lopez beat back the perception that Fiat was trying to move on with its marketing, by featuring a Cinquecento Cabrio in her American Music Awards performance. We’ll let the performance speak for itself, but suffice it to say that Ms Lopez broke new ground in the commercialization of the AMAs, garnering considerable attention for both herself and Fiat… and it wasn’t all positive either. Criticism began when several music stars took to Twitter to call the product placement “shameless” among other things. Questlove of The Roots provided what may have been the most widespread reaction, tweeting

Yo. I know I didn’t just see that dumb Fiat. I KNOW I didn’t just see that friggin’ Fiat.

And of course the media piled on, saying the performance “destroyed whatever credibility she had left,” a “scene [that] could have been taken from the Detroit auto show,” “the most cringe-inducing, embarrassing performance of the night,” a “miscalculation,” and “a car ad crossed with a striptease.” Considering that Lopez’s 500 ads have already been fairly widely ridiculed, it’s safe to say that this was almost certainly the culmination of the Fiat/JLo collaboration.

And even if JLo isn’t booted from the Fiat 500 marketing effort, there will be changes. Bloomberg reports that

Chrysler Group LLC’s head of the Fiat brand in North America, Laura Soave, is leaving the company and being replaced by Tim Kuniskis, a marketing executive, a person familiar with the situation said.

Jalopnik reckons the firing has something to do with

unsubstantiated rumors for a couple months now from sources knowledgeable of internal Chrysler politics that she was being investigated for a possible improper relationship with Michael D’Antonio, the CEO of former Fiat ad agency Impatto Custom Marketing.

More likely: Fiat is abandoning the disastrous JLo-theme marketing, and initiating a clean reboot of Fiat’s entire ad and brand strategies. In any case, it’s certainly tough to argue that Soave has had any real success thus far. Now the question is: can Fiat take another shot at the market? Will the market give it another shot? Or will the 500 be forever associated with JLo and this abortive relaunch marketing effort?

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Can The Scorpion’s Sting Save Fiat’s Flopping 500? Wed, 16 Nov 2011 17:33:41 +0000 Fiat’s 500 may be flopping early in the game, but then, what do you expect from a car with barely 100 horsepower? Though I’m sure the Cinquecento is better with a stick shift, my brief time in an autobox version left me feeling that Fiat’s italophile morsel could use considerably more brio. Well, consider the problem solved, as the 160 HP Abarth version has finally been shown in US-market spec, and sales should start sometime early next year. And based on European reactions to the Abarth, it should be a little firecracker. So, enthusiasm solved… now Fiat just needs to do something about its high prices, uninspiring fuel economy and wretched marketing. Then everything will be just fine… although I still wouldn’t hold my breath for 50k units per year.

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Fiat 500: Yup, It’s Flopping Tue, 15 Nov 2011 01:26:03 +0000

I was not the only person to predict that the Fit 500 would enjoy strong initial sales and then flop as the novelty wore off… and I was half right! Sales climbed early, peaking at around 3k units per month this summer before dropping precipitously in September and October. In August were still wondering if the 500 could become a classic, but as of November 1, Fiat 500 inventory stood at a staggering 184 days. Now, Automotive News [sub] quotes UAW officials as saying that

Chrysler Group has suspended production this month of the 1.4-liter FIRE engine that powers the Fiat 500 in North America because of slow U.S. sales of the subcompact

One in four workers at the Dundee plant where that engine is made has been laid off according to the report, which is a pity considering Fiat got five percent of Chrysler in return for those US jobs. And keep in mind, this is happening at a time when anecdotal reports of Fiat 500s in rental fleets are beginning to become more common… the 500′s retail sales number is likely quite a bit lower than the gross volume numbers cited here. Nor do we know what kind of incentives are being used to push the 500 out the door. But despite all this, and the fact that the 500 will not sell the hoped-for 50,000 units in North America, Chrysler is keeping a brave (or is that delusional?) face on the situation, telling AN that it is

very pleased with the progress we are making with the North American launch of the Fiat brand.

Really? Really? Wait, hold up a moment, I predicted that too! Way back in November of 2009, I wrote

Fiat wants to use the 500 to consolidate its strong presence in Latin America, where small, 100 hp vehicles are more accepted. The majority of 500 production at Toluca, Mexico will go to Brazil and other Latin American countries, as a halo for the Fiat brand’s success there.

Meanwhile, in the US market, the 500 will be little more than an overpriced fashion accessory… Nobody, from Sergio Marchionne on down, cares if this car succeeds in the US except for the fashionista fanatics who will pay nearly any price for one.

It just turns out that there are fewer of those people left than anyone thought…

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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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Fiat Will Miss Its 50k Sales Goal This Year. What About Next Year? Fri, 12 Aug 2011 17:08:44 +0000

If you answered in the negative when we asked if Fiat would be able to make its 50k unit sales goal in the US this year, you were right. Executives for the Italian brand tell Automotive News [sub] that

“We lost the whole first quarter”… If the store openings had occurred as planned, the sales target would’ve been achieved… Now, that will “probably not” occur this year.

This is no real surprise. Thanks to the slow rollout, Fiat has sold only 7,982 units so far this year… but even with sales at their current levels (3,083 units in July), sales would only barely top 36k units in a 12-month period. Of course, next year the 500 is joined by a higher-performance Abarth version (no, not that one) as well as a hideously expensive electric version, so sales should continue to climb. On the other hand, the brand is hoping for 100k units next year, or about double the MINI brand’s 12-month average… so Fiat may well be looking at another missed sales goal anyway.

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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 (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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Review: Fiat 500C Fri, 23 Apr 2010 15:09:48 +0000

John Steel, 42. Resident Nurburgring hotlapper, amateur race driver and menace of all slow moving objects. On weekends, he likes thrashing his Porsche 997 Mark II GT3-RS around the local track. Karen Levy, 25. Professional mall stormer, party queen and dedicated student. Enjoys a fine café-latte by the Mediterranean Sea and the gentle spring breeze while driving her Fiat 500C.

Two people, two separate sides of the automotive equilibrium. This time, driving around the peaceful and slow moving streets of southern Tel Aviv, amongst buzzing restaurants and overcrowded coffee shops, I get to explore the latter. Meet the Fiat 500C: the open-air sibling of the 500 retro car, and an inevitable win of form over function.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the ‘C’ in this Italian mini car’s name stands for convertible – only the 500C doesn’t really convert into anything. Taking the recipe of the original 500, Fiat’s ever-quirky engineers left the roof structure entirely solid, with a sliding fabric roof replacing the conventional steel – essentially a very large sunroof. This unconventional setup allows for a greater structural integrity than a traditional convertible, improves safety (all 7 airbags are left intact) and benefits practicality (since the roof doesn’t have to be stored in the trunk). But the real reason this setup was chosen is also the original sibling’s raison d’etre: affordability. Does it all work out in the real world? Let’s see.

Parked by the curb, the 500C attracts a lot of attention – most of it, predictably, from ambassadors of the female gender. Interestingly (while not surprisingly), it is also the Gay Car of the Year. Gender preferences aside, the 500C is a pretty car – ‘cute’ attractive, not ‘wow’ attractive. The retro-esque grille with the horizontal chrome emblem and round headlights give the car a face of sorts – and it’s certainly smiling. Its bubbly proportions and the tan roof neatly folded against the trunk transform you to a time when The Beatles topped the charts and Cuba was all about nuclear warheads.

Looking for the rear window? It’s not there, at least not when the roof is folded. Without a trunk to fold into, the fabric cover neatly arranges itself to perfectly block the driver’s rear view. With the roof, gone is the small window – so if you’re into drop top driving, you’ll have to rely on the mercy of the parking sensors and the flexibility of your partner’s neck. Really, who needs a rear view where there’s so much sky to look at?

The disappearing rear window isn’t the only awkwardness in the 500C’s chic cabin. Fortunately, that’s mostly good awkwardness: color coded plastic panels, a radial speedometer and rev counter, and in the well equipped tester – sporty red leather seats with contrasting white headrests. All pleasing to the eye, but not to the touch – Fiat’s newly-found interior quality hasn’t found its way here.

The wiggly handbrake, air conditioning controls and door handles and the flimsy rear seat access mechanism are just a few of the components that don’t have anything in common with solidity or quality, and most of the plastics are hollow and low rent. The same goes for the roof: my tester barely clocked 5,000 (admittedly difficult) miles and the roof was already stained. The driving position is also seriously lacking, leaving you too far from the steering wheel and too close to the pedals. Taller fans of the elevated driving position will find their head comically sticking out the roof.

The 500C’s roof has three modes: closed, half-open and Who Let the Dogs Out. The last two are fine for city driving, but in speeds reaching recommended freeway velocities, you risk blowing off your eardrums. Fortunately, if you’re looking for a peaceful and quiet drive, sound isolation while the roof is closed is quite good – not significantly worse than the standard 500.

Should the party in question consist of more than two adults, you better call shotgun fast – the rear seats are just OK for a shorter teen, and range from troubling to impossible, depending on your definition of a full size adult. Luckily, the unique roof doesn’t hamper headroom – which wasn’t too impressive to begin with – that’s sufficient for sub-six-footers. Getting back there, however, is a chore: rear seat access is clumsy – the handle doesn’t push the seat forwards, so entering the rear seat is a multiple stage process. The trunk is more reminiscent of a glovebox (6.3 cubic feet), and while the fancy roof only takes up 3 liters of storage space, sizeable shopping bags are probably the most you’ll fit in there.

The good thing about convertible cars: everyone seems to think you’re enjoying yourself, when in fact, you’re not. Powered by the 1.4 liter gasoline unit, the 500C spits out a full 100 horses – which sounds good for a small car, until you recall it isn’t really small, what with its dazzling array of airbags and safety features, nearing the car’s curb weight to a tick below a ton. And so, along with Fiat’s soon-to-be-discontinued sequential Dualogic gearbox, it completes the sprint to sixty at almost 11 seconds.

11 seconds don’t sound like much on paper, and they definitely don’t look like much on the road. The insensitive throttle needs a serious kick to garner some pace. Try flooring it when the light turns green and there isn’t even one tiny bit of a tire squeal to boost your alter ego. And then comes the shift to second.

Yes, this gearbox is terrible – there really isn’t a softer way to describe it. Sure, you can adapt to it and you can meticulously learn to lift your foot off the throttle when it decides to shift. You can also bring it flowers and chocolates on its birthday – the thing is, you’re not supposed to have a delicate relationship with your gearbox, and being advertised as an automatic, this powertrain creates false hopes of a smooth self shifter. Be aggressive with the throttle, and your head gets thrown against the hard plastic heardrest – almost as if the car scolds you for misbehaving. Smash the throttle in high gear, and absolutely nothing will happen – it simply won’t downshift.

According to the auto journalist’s handbook, when all hope is lost, try the Sport button. Pressing the red button makes the 500C hold on to a gear for dear life, ignoring subtle notes (like a gentle pet of the throttle) and bolder ones (like cursing in three languages). The steering marginally stiffens up and the throttle becomes more sensitive, but these changes are too subtle to have any dynamic implications.

Sport, then, is probably not a part of this 500C’s lexicon. Performance aside, the overassisted Dualdrive steering stiffens suddenly and artificially during acceleration. It’s vague and lacks any concept of feel, which doesn’t inspire confidence during spirited driving. If you manage to get past the steering, you’ll find that the little convertible can offer decent amounts of fun thanks to its short wheelbase, allowing it to cut corners and induce some tail play – all monitored by the electronic nanny, of course. But it isn’t a sporty car – not even a warm hatch, and surely not the first choice for a Sunday drive.

If you’re a John Steel, you would probably hate the Fiat 500 Convertible. The back is cramped, the plastics are cheap, the ride is bumpy, the driving position is horrible, the engine is weak, the gearbox is annoying and the steering is awful – I could bash this car for hours. But then again, judging the 500C acutely would be wrong. It drips with character, sits theoretical four people and some luggage, attracts loads of looks and has a shiny tan roof, which is what Miss Levy looks for in her brand new city car. So if these are the qualities at the top of your shortlist and you can’t afford the more expensive (but much better, albeit less practical) Mini Cooper Convertible, the 500C may be the car for you. I, for one, know it’s not for me.

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

This review brought to you by

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