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Auto Corner: Italy's Fiat 500 Invades the Micro Car Market

13 April 2013  
Auto Corner: Italy's Fiat 500 Invades the Micro Car Market Good Things. Small Package.

© 2012 John Dickerson, Horsepower Auto Reviews

Lamborghinis are Italian. Ferraris are Italian. And so is the $16,000 Fiat 500—now available at your local Chrysler or Dodge dealership. Of course, the Fiat 500 isn't as fast as its Ferrari cousins, but it does turn heads. And it offers more interior space, better reliability and incredible fuel economy—about 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

As gas prices remain stubbornly high, auto manufacturers are improving gas mileage across all makes and models. Buyer demand for better fuel economy has ignited a new genre of micro cars—tiny cars that make a Mini Cooper look bloated. Among these small cars, many are zippy and inexpensive, but no others are Italian or beautiful. Enter the Fiat 500—a car that brings beauty and mystique to economical buyers.

Drivers who embrace the new ultra-compact normal will be rewarded with stares and very infrequent trips to the pump. Shorter and narrower than the Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500 defines what a great looking ultra-compact can look and feel like for this emerging market.

Like many of the best tiny cars, the Fiat feels large inside. The 500's gorgeous styling sets it apart from Toyota, Honda and Nissan competitors. This is particularly true inside, where the 500's dashboard and high quality materials offer a more luxurious feel and attractive look than other small cars. Given its tiny dimensions, I was particularly impressed with the 500's back seat comfort for adult passengers—at least for brief trips across town.

Under the hood, the Fiat offers very little horsepower. Its tiny 1.4-liter engine is central to an old school strategy for gas mileage. The 500 generates only 101 horsepower, but with a curb weight of just 2,363 pounds, that's enough power for average driving. More importantly, that small engine only drinks one gallon of gas for every 40 miles on the highway. City driving lands at about 30 mpg. Those wishing for more power and acceleration can upgrade to the 500 Abarth, which produces 160 horsepower and radically enhances the driving experience.

With either engine option, Fiat 500 owners will find that this tiny cars handles with Italian excellence. And you won't drive a car that's easier to park or maneuver.

Today's small cars are engineered for safety, and the Fiat 500 is no exception. It comes standard with an army of safety features including vehicle stability control, traction control, brake distribution, and a host of airbags protecting driver and passengers. To top it off, the 500 recently received a five star crash test rating for front impact.

Fiat has been building the 500 for decades. This particular incarnation of the 500 was selling well in Europe back when Americans were happily buying gas for $1 a gallon. That established, time-tested expertise of small car design shows in every detail of the 500. Any small car shopper would do well to give the Fiat 500 serious consideration—and a test drive.  

By John Dickerson and John Kehlenbeck, Horsepower Auto Reviews