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Posted: November 21, 2011

Executive wheels:The wow! factor

Tuscany on wheels

Jeff Rundles

2012Fiat500Ext.jpg

2012 Fiat 500 POP

Fiat 500 - just introduced in the US for 2012 and the first new Fiat in this country since 1984 - is going to shake things up in the sub-compact marketplace. It not only ranks right up there as the best sub-compact on the market, it is one of the finest vehicles I have driven this year, and I've had some that cost nearly $100,000.

Wow, what a car.

The only other sub-compact car I can compare favorably with the Fiat 500 is the Suzuki SX4, and I rank that one up there only because it is available in all-wheel-drive. An SX4 without AWD compared directly to the new Fiat would lose out on the fun factor.

I can't even describe how much I like the Fiat. It has, without question, the most handsome and inspiring interior of any car I have driven in years. My test-drive model was bright red outside, with two-tone red/white upholstery, and a white, leather trimmed steering wheel. The dash is beautiful, compact, and all of the controls are expertly placed and quite handsome. Even the radio and climate controls were done in the white/creamy off-white, and I just loved it. The 5-speed manual gear-shift knob is not mounted on the floor, but rather at elbow height on the front of the control panel, and it is among the most intelligently designed shifter systems I have ever driven with.

When I first saw the car I thought it was so small that maybe 12 clowns would pile out; indeed, more than one person I ran into over the week made the clown-car reference. If there were clowns in there, it would be more like 24 of them, as once you get inside the car is quite roomy. The front seat space is impressive, and the back seat is like a magic trick: I have been in compact cars and what the car rental agencies call "mid-sized" that have less leg room - and I have been in many, many other cars, from the low end to the high end, that would lie, cheat and steal to have seats fore and aft that are as comfortable as the Fiat 500's.

Also, the headroom is impressive - more room over my head than in most cars, big or small (I guess tall Italians need cars too). The rear of the hatchback vehicle has a liftgate that is easy to operate, and while there isn't a great deal of room in there for storage, there's plenty for a grocery run and everything else you'd need around town. If you have bigger needs, like golf clubs, the rear seats fold down 50/50 with ease, affording a really nice storage compartment assuming there are no people or just one person sitting back there.

It is the driving, however, where this beautiful car really distinguishes itself. The Fiat features a 1.4-liter I4 engine with 101 hp that feels like it is closer to 150. This is a zippy car, with plenty of get-up-and-go. When I took it out on the highway I was worried that perhaps that would be where I found the power lacking, as I did in the Toyota, but that was not the case. I got onto I-25, went to the Boulder Turnpike and all the way to Boulder, and once in 5th gear I never downshifted until I left the highway, and I could accelerate at will anytime. Don't tell the police, but I was doing 65 mph in the 55 zone, and inadvertently hit 80 in the 65 zone a couple of times and I wasn't even pushing the car. If the Toyota had hamsters, this car has something like vicious wolverines in there on the treadmill.
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What you really notice, however, especially when you get out on the highway where cars - your own and the others around -- tend to throw off a lot of noise, is how quiet the Fiat 500 is. It is as quiet as the Jaguar I drove the week before (a great car; review upcoming), but at $81k just a tad more expensive than the Fiat). I notice the noise factor all the time - it's a big issue with me - and in the Fiat you can have a civil conversation, listen to the excellent radio, or just listen to yourself think without any distraction.

And then there's the driving. This car has great balance; the rear tires are moved back to the corners that gives the Fiat 500 a wonderful center of gravity, so it feels like a much bigger car. This also helps in cornering, and this car holds the road quite nicely. It has a great turn radius, doesn't lean in the curves and feels quite stable. And, of course, because it is a small car, it can park anywhere - parallel, head-in, back-in - with ease, even those motorcycle-like spaces for $20 bucks an hour that pass for parking lots in downtown Denver.

There's also a "Sport" button on the dash that tightens steering and, according to the literature, makes the engine "more responsive;" to be honest, I really didn't notice anything as I found the steering tight and the engine responsive in any mode.

2012Fiat500Dash.jpg

I also really liked the readouts on the dash. There is a central circle, like in many cars, for the speedometer, but they also use the same circle, with a smaller circumference for the tachometer; at first, you tend to look at the tach as speed, which will get you a ticket, but you get used to it. Then in the center of the circle they have the temperature gauge, the gas gauge, the digital clock, the outside temperature and information from the radio - what song is playing, what station. They cram a lot of things into a small space, and they have done it in a very handsome way. And there are no separate interior door locks; to lock the door you simply push in the handle, and to unlock pull it out.

There is also a voice command system that will operate the Bluetooth phone system and the radio (it works great, on the radio at least since I didn't have the phone connected), and if you want navigation they have made it easy to put in a Tom-Tom on the lower-end models, and have available a Garvin

The Fiat 500 has just two headlights, and they are bi-halogen, and they light the way very brightly, with low beams and high beams. Also, one of the coolest features I have ever seen on any car is the rear-window wiper: when you have the front wipers on and place the car in reverse, the rear wiper comes on automatically. Very impressive. I drove the car on a hot day and a very cold night, and I can personally attest to the cool-ability of the AC and the heat-ability of the heater. The plus factors are that the AC doesn't diminish power, and the heater comes on very quickly, allowing for speedy defrost and quick comfort.

There are 5 trims in the Fiat 500, and I drove the basic one, the Pop (base price $15,500). I couldn't find anything to suggest what Pop means, so I take it to mean short for popular, like Pop Culture. There's also the Sport hatchback (base: $17,500), which has a few more interior options and standard 16" wheels, then the Lounge Hatchback (base: $19,500), with more cool stuff - like a fixed glass roof or a power sunroof. Then there's the C Pop (base:$19,500) and the C Lounge Cabrio (base: $23,500), which are the same as the others except that they have a power convertible top - the top stops just behind the front seats for a sunroof effect, just behind the rear seat for a giant sunroof effect, or goes all the way back. I have seen it on the street and the C models are beautiful.

There are a ton of options, like premium wheels, racing stripe accent kits or flags for the roof top (US, Canada, Italy, Mexico), ski and snowboard racks, and bike racks. There's also a cool idea: the Eco-Drive where you download it into a computer, plug a USB drive into the Fiat 500 USB port, and then take it back to computer and analyze your personal driving style. They say it can actually help teach drivers how to improve driving efficiency; e.g. use less fuel, reduce C02 emissions. And don't miss the optional ambient lighting kit that illuminates the footwells in up to eight color combinations.

I guess I never gave much thought to what Fiat stood for; I thought it was just a name. But it turns out that it is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, which in English means Automobile Factory of Turin (why do things sound so much more beautiful in Italian?). I owned a Fiat back in college - a 1974 128, a little sedan, which I bought brand new for $1750 - and it was a fun car that I drove for about five years with very few problems. I went to Italy in 2007 and my wife, son and I were very impressed with the Fiats we saw there, especially a model called the Panda that is just a little larger than the 500, features four doors and is available in AWD. I hear tell that Fiat is going to have up to five models in the US by 2014, and perhaps one of them will be the Panda. I can only hope.

The 500, however, known famously in Italy as the Cinquecentro, is the line's iconic model, having debuted in 1957 and for nearly 20 years one of the top selling cars in all of Europe. The new one is larger than the original, but they have maintained the famous look, and driving it - for me at least - is a little piece of Tuscany right here in Colorado.

My test-drive model carried the $15,500 base price, and they added in: a Customer Preferred Package, for $500, including Blue&Me communications (voice commands, Bluetooth), and leather wrapped steering wheel with wheel-mounted controls; a Bose Premium Audio Package, for $1250, that had all the nice stuff, plus Sirius satellite radio and an alarm, and sounded wonderful; and, 15" aluminum wheels for $500. The sticker then took off $500 in a Blue&Me discount, added $500 in destination charges, and the bottom line was $17,750.

I haven't had a test-drive car in years that drew so much interest from other drivers and passersby, and I haven't had one that I wanted to buy this much. I would buy it. I'm thinking of buying one, with the caveat that I want to see what else Fiat (and Chrysler) is going to bring over from Italy.

For now, I'll just say Bellissimo!

RATING: FOUR WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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