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The Fiat 500 is ten pounds of fun in a five pound package...but will that be enough to make it a success in the U.S.?
The Fiat 500 marks the return of the Italian car company after an over twenty-five year absence from this market. There are plenty of classic car people who would like to perpetuate the stereotype that Fiats best serve as rusting lawn art. But the over quarter-century absence has created a generation that has rarely, if ever, seen a Fiat, and they could easily forgive a past they never experienced.
Those of us who have enjoyed cars from Fiat's past know that (when they were running) they were great. Fiats have traditionally meant driving excitement at a budget price, and that's why there is buzz around the Fiat 500 going on sale in the U.S. early next year. In fact, we were so excited that we decided to hop a plane to the U.K. to drive one before the little cars hit Chrysler showrooms in January.
The new Fiat 500 shouldn't disappoint driving purists. It does a fine job of being a tame commuter car (which is likely its greatest practical use,) but that's not the whole story. Press the "Sport" button on the center console and the Fiat 500 becomes a whole different animal. The steering ratio tightens and the throttle becomes more responsive. Like any good European car, its suspension will stick to the road, adding to the Fiat 500’s overall feel of pure driving fun.
On the economy car market, the Fiat 500 will be tough to beat. It may offer less rear passenger room and is one of the most expensive small cars in its price class, but the MINI Cooper has proven that people will make sacrifices for personality. In fact, a used MINI Cooper will likely be the Fiat 500's fiercest direct competition.
The Fiat 500 and the MINI get high 30s mpg when driven frugally; they both use retro car styling; and they both try to run in classes with larger cars. The Fiat's 101 hp is 19 less than available the heavier MINI. After a few years on the road, the MINI's $4,600 premium over the Fiat 500's $15,500 base price will be greatly reduced.
A real problem that stands in the Fiat 500's way is size. At a half a foot shorter than a MINI, the Fiat 500 has small dimensions that few have ever dared to introduce to America. The Fiat 500 is going to be one of the best economy cars on the market for parking and taking the long way home, but is that enough to convince us all that smaller is better?
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