Test Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport

? Fiat returns to North America after long hiatus?

The iconic Fiat 500 has been absent from the North American marketplace for more than 25 years. It?s possible that it disappeared due to dependability issues and the premise that FIAT was an acronym for ?Fix It Again Tony?. Whether or not that was a factual contention, Fiat always had a passionate and generous following on our shores ? especially the Abarth version, which delivered a higher level of performance.

The original Fiat 500 (Cinquecento) made its first appearance more than 50 years ago on July 4th, 1957 in Turin, Italy. Nearly four million were produced between 1957 and 1975. The original displayed beautiful Italian styling blended with a timeless functionality, efficient design attributes and innovative technology. The original Fiat ?Nuova? 500 represented a catalyst in 1957 for the country of the?poor, but beautiful? to be not quite as poor as before. Now, more than a half century since its debut, the 2012 Fiat 500 returns with the same desirable qualities and appeal for a new generation of drivers. According to Laura Soave, CEO and head of the Fiat Brand in North America, ?The Fiat 500 has always been the right car at the right time?. She pointed out that it brings something truly unique to a rapidly growing segment here in America, delivering Italian-by-design functionality and value, with intelligently tailored efficiency for our market.

Much in the same fashion as the first Cinquecento, the new 2012 Fiat 500 displays the brand?s ingenuity in building world-class small cars that kindle a spirit via simple design, old world craftsmanship and lasting value ? the company?s small car formula worked before, and still works today. With our country?s ?getting back to basics? movement, the new iteration of the Fiat 500 helps to fulfill the current minimalistic attitude, while providing state-of-the-art, eco-friendly technology, packaged in an appealing and stylish vehicle.

The Fiat 500 for 2012 delivers safety, fuel economy, quality and advanced technological features, blended with iconic Italian style. This modern generation 500 closely resembles the original, displaying strong, unmistakable, early Fiat DNA. The original 500s were rear engined vehicles, designed to carry four occupants. Today?s examples are still city-friendly, four passenger rides in an ?A? segment format, but feature a forward-mounted engine, in a larger, more comfortable package. This latest U.S. version is based on the globally popular Fiat 500 , first launched in 2007, with over half a million sold in more than 80 countries around the world. It was named the 2008 European Car of the Year, along with garnering 60 other international awards.

The 2012 Fiat 500 captures the original Cinquecento?s iconic allure in a smartly formatted no-nonsense design, artfully and harmoniously blended with technical, cultural and creative aspects. Head of Fiat Style, Roberto Giolito quipped ?Personally, I like to think of the Fiat 500 as the automotive equalivent of the iPod ? sleek, simple, functional, user-friendly and inspired.

Overhangs are short and the bodyside consists of several superimposed layers, topped by a ?shell-like? roof. Up front, the signature ?whiskers and logo? face incorporates new projector headlamps and lower park lamps. The front fascia tapers outward toward the pronounced wheel arches, displaying a wide, road-holding stance. The upper portion of the fascia features a horizontal cooling duct, while the lower ?honeycomb? style grille integrates stylish fog lamps. Wheel arches are flared and the body-side A-line slopes from the clean clam-shell hood to fender cut. The sides are rounded and both head and taillamps are visible from the side. The 500?s iconic profile is finished off by the roof pillars and shadow-line window molding, forming a gentle continuous arc that also hides the door?s upper edges. In the rear, taillamps flank the rear-opening liftgate, with its rear window spanning the full width, cleaning meeting the ?C? pillars.

The interior styling and design cues are as simple and appealing as those of the exterior. Controls are logically placed for easy and intuitive use. The gearshift is positioned conveniently in the center stack. Features such as the concentric instrument cluster containing speedometer, tachometer and trip computer were inspired by the original 500. Portable Tom-Tom navigation is available along with BLUE&ME Handsfree Communication. Interior panels are generally executed in body color, but may be ordered in either Ivory or Black for added personalization. Inside door handles operate by pushing to lock and pulling to unlock. Essentially, the Fiat 500 may be configured in more than 500 thousand different ways.

The 2012 Fiat 500 is available in three levels of trim: a well equipped Pop model; the appropriately named Sport version; and upscale Lounge model. There are 14 exterior finishes as well as 14 interior treatments to choose from across the lineup.

All Fiat 500s are powered by a 1.4-liter DOHC, 16-valve MultiAir? inline 4-cylinder engine with sequential multi-port electronic, returnless fuel injection. The innovative new engine delivers 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm along with 98 pound feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Weighing a mere 250 pounds, the engine resides transversely up front, with either a five-speed manual gearbox, or 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual model, metering the driving force to the front wheels.?Both the Pop and Lounge models ride on 15-inch wheels and tires, while the Sport model rolls on 16-inchers.

My driving partner and I tested virtually all trim levels, but spent the most time in a Sport version with the manual transmission. The exterior finish was sprayed Rosso Brilliante ? a deep red metallic, while the interior was executed in body color, Gray and Ivory tones. The base price was set at $17,500 , while the price as tested came to an estimated $19,000. After adding for the portable Nav system, power sunroof and D&H. The Sport is expected to represent roughly 50 percent of Fiat 500 sales. Base price for the Pop is $15,500, and the Lounge begins at $19,500. Destination and Handling for all is $500.

SUMMARY: Driving the 2012 Fiat 500 is a hoot. The models tested were all pre-production units and tended to vary in fit, finish and performance. Issues such as clutch engagement and shift linkage were different in different vehicles ? nothing dramatically negative, just different, which took some getting used to. All models feature a dash-mounted sport button which improves the throttle mapping and engine response. Normal operation is an ?Eco-mode?, which is not as responsive, nor is it as much fun. My driving partner forgot to try the Sport mode initially and complained about? the little car?s responsiveness. I put all models in the Sport mode and left them there and thoroughly enjoyed the zesty characteristics.

Acceleration is surprising with only 101 horses available, but the car only weighs 2,363 pounds (add 71 pounds for the automatic transmission). The ride quality in the Sport model with its larger, 16-inch wheels and tires was noticeably firmer than the other two models with their 15-inch donuts.

Rear seat room is best left to small adults or children, particularly with larger front seat occupants. The rear seat backs fold down for added functionality and versatility, with a reasonable amount of room for personal gear with them up. One awkward issue arose when my co-driver set the front passenger seat up to accommodate himself in the rear ? he fit okay, but was unable to reach the inside door handle, even with the seat pushed forward all the way. The moral? Stay up front and enjoy, especially in the Sport model whose seats are specially designed for added support and comfort.

Built in Toluca, Mexico, the Fiat 500 comes with a standard four-year/50/000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and four years of unlimited roadside assistance along with a three-year/36,000-mile maintenance program that includes wera-and-tear items and trip-interruption reimbursements.

In the final analysis, the 2012 Fiat 500 is great fun, is really cute (normally I avoid this description, but in this case it fits quite well) and attracts lots of attention. It is reasonably priced, allowing one to spend only what they want, and it is eco-friendly as well. Look for an Abarth edition with more horses, a Cabrio version, as well as a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) to come in the near future.