Say “Buon Giorno” to the New Fiat

2012 Fiat 500 Sport.

It started in 1998 with the Volkswagen New Beetle. That was followed by the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Mini Cooper and Chevrolet HHR. What’s the common thread? New compact cars that pay tribute to a classic design from the past.

Hitting the streets right about now is the latest retro-mobile, the Fiat 500, or “Cinquecento” in Italian. The cute-as-a-bug little coupe is significant for a number of reasons.

First, its arrival here is the result of a partnership formed between Chrysler and Fiat, with Fiat having helped save Chrysler during the auto industry brouhaha of a couple of years ago. Second, it marks the first time we Americans have been able to buy a new Fiat since 1983.

Like the Beetle and Mini, Fiat based the design of the 500 on a car that came about in Europe in the years following WWII, when gasoline and raw materials were in short supply. The original 500 was very small, and was powered by an air-cooled engine that sat at the rear, like the original Beetle.

But like the new Mini, this modern Fiat hopes to establish itself here as a combination of style and economy – a car that fashionable people with plenty of disposable income will buy because it smacks of European flair. The fact that it doesn’t cost a lot (under $20,000) and gets good gas mileage (30-38 mpg depending on transmission) are just icing on the cake.

I got to spend a week with the little Neapolitan two-door, and I have to say it’s really a fun car to be in. It zips along smartly, especially if you opt for the Sport model and the 5-speed manual transmission. The suspension is firm but not harsh, and it can make a u-turn on just about any residential street due to its tight steering radius.

Engine power isn’t overwhelming, but since the car doesn’t weigh much, the 101 horsepower that it does make is fine if you keep the tachometer in the sweet spot. Freeway cruising is a breeze, though the car is much more at home on city streets or squeezing into that small parking space nobody else wants in the Trader Joe’s lot.

The 500 has been on sale in Europe since 2007, and Fiat did make a few changes for the U.S. market. First, they had to develop an automatic transmission for the car, since the car was manual-only in Europe. They also widened the seats (uh-oh…that’s not a compliment), and added an armrest and larger cup holders. Otherwise, it’s the same car, though ours are built at Chrysler’s plant in Toluca, Mexico, a town whose name has a nice ring to it.

Obvious comparisons will be made with the Mini Cooper, but it and the Fiat 500 are actually not that similar. The Mini is a bit longer and a lot wider, is roomier inside, and costs a lot more. You also get a bit more performance with the Mini, especially opting for the S model with its turbocharged engine.

Nevertheless, Fiat and Chrysler will surely have a hit on their hands with this car, and Chrysler dealers had to compete to see which ones would get to establish a Fiat showroom within their dealerships. Look for lots of slick marketing as well as accessories, much the way Mini has capitalized on their owners looking to accessorize themselves and their cars to further their love affairs with the cars.

The base “Pop” trim is $15,500, while the “Sport” will set you back $17,500. The top rung of the Fiat 500 ladder is the $19,500 “Lounge,” which comes standard with a 6-speed automatic transmission and can be loaded up with things like leather seats and a navigation system.

And this is just the first phase of Fiat’s return to our shores. Look for the performance-oriented Abarth model to follow along soon enough, lest the Mini Cooper S win all the freeway onramp drag races.

So when you see this cute little Italian prowling our streets, presumably with a fun-loving driver behind the wheel, give the car a wave, and a welcome of “Ciao!”

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @davekunzcars

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