The 2012 Fiat 500 arrived on U.S. shores to great fanfare, and the extremely stylish, entry-level hatchback was lauded as the cornerstone of the Italian automaker's return to the American market after years spent consolidating its empire in Europe. While the optimistic sales figures projected by Fiat executives didn't exactly materialize, close to 20,000 examples of the vehicle found their way into new homes during the course of the first model year, demonstrating that the diminutive two-door definitely had the cachet needed to lure in a fresh generation of owners.
Fiat's decision to position the Fiat 500 as a somewhat premium offering was brazen, but as attitudes across North America continue to change concerning the viability of ultra-small automobiles as daily drivers, it was only a matter of time before a subcompact test case was foisted on the public and given a chance to sink or swim on its own merits. The Fiat 500 might have been the first, but certainly won't be the last of a new breed of not-necessarily-affordable yet not-quite-luxury vehicles to be pushed into the deep end of the subcompact segment.
The 2012 Fiat 500 has the daunting task of introducing itself to a subcompact market that hasn't ever been as healthy as it currently is. Those seeking an entry-level automobile are faced with a cornucopia of options running the gamut from value-focused vehicles like the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent on up to more specialized, semi-premium cars such as the MINI Cooper and the Scion iQ. Outliers like the smart fortwo - soundly rejected by American drivers unimpressed by its ride quality, lack of practicality, and unimpressive fuel mileage - are also lurking in the subcompact shadows.
The hatchback edition of the 2012 Fiat 500 (a convertible is also available) is offered in three different trim levels. The base Fiat 500 Pop starts at an MSRP of $15,500, while the mid-range Sport edition retails for $17,500. The top-tier Fiat 500 trim level (excluding the high performance Abarth and Gucci special edition) is the Lounge, which commands an asking price of $18,500.
Our Fiat 500 test vehicle was a Lounge model, which after various optional equipment was installed saw its out-the-door MSRP bump up to just under $20,000.
The 2012 Fiat 500 has an exceptionally pronounced styling advantage over almost every other subcompact car on the market with the possible exceptions of the Chevrolet Sonic, the Hyundai Elantra, and the more expensive MINI Cooper. The Fiat 500's retro-themed sheet metal is an incredible attention-getter whether the vehicle is in motion or parked, and understandably so - the small car's overall design is gorgeous. The hatchback looks best when ordered in monotone paint, such as the Nero black that our tester wore, and its subtle chrome accents on the front grille and front and rear bumpers add an upscale touch that is complemented by chrome door pulls and a chrome-colored badge just behind the front doors. The over-sized chrome-look hatch handle is a little out of place given the subtlety of the rest of the Fiat 500's package, but the vehicle's multi-spoke wheels are a perfect match for the small car's understated classiness.
The 2012 Fiat 500's passenger compartment is more of a mixed bag. Our week-long test vehicle's Rosso red leather seats were nice to look at, but adjusting them to achieve a good driving position using the manual controls that were provided was a difficult task - even with reasonable amounts of head and leg room, we never quite felt like we were completely comfortable behind the wheel. It's also important to note that despite the presence of a vestigial rear row of accommodations, the Fiat 500 is very much a two-passenger automobile, as only small children or perhaps pets would find the rear positions acceptable even for short trips.
Cargo space in the Fiat 500, however, is a different story. Although the steel seatbacks offered by the rear row might have a semi-industrial feel, they offer a strong and reasonably flat load floor when flipped down to open up just over 30 cubic feet of total usable space. Loading oversized items into the 500 was not an issue, as its gaping hatch opening eagerly swallowed flower boxes, outdoor garbage cans, and other supplies from the local Home Depot.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is equipped with a single gauge display immediately in front of the driver, and this unit is charged with displaying engine speed, vehicle speed, and a variety of different vehicle information readouts nestled inside a series of concentric circles. The orange speedometer indicator was not always easy to read, especially with the adjustable steering wheel set low, but the simple radio, heating, and air conditioning controls on the vehicle's center stack, however, posed no particular challenges in figuring out their functionality.
The rest of the Fiat's interior trim - minus the very nice Rosso inserts on the door panels - had us pining for a lower percentage of hard plastics. This was particularly true of the dash, which was covered by a plastic shell that stretched from one side of the vehicle to the other that was reminiscent of another retro-themed offering: the departed Chrysler PT Cruiser.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge is available exclusively with a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine under the hood. This unit is tuned to produce 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, and it can be mated to either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The front-wheel drive Fiat 500 turns in fuel economy figures of 30-mpg in city driving and 38-mpg on the highway. For those who need a bit more grunt, the Abarth model slaps on a turbocharger in order to squeeze out 160 horses and 170 lb-ft of torque, managed by a five-speed manual transmission.
We will preface this section of the review by stating that from all reports, driving a 2012 Fiat 500 when it is equipped with its standard five-speed manual transmission is actually quite a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, the Lounge model we piloted was saddled with a six-speed automatic that sucked all of the joy out of being behind the wheel. The ratios in the six-speed unit imparted the 1.4-liter motor with an unpolished character that presented itself when the small engine would noisily protest its gradual push to the redline as the result of a downshift.
The 500 did offer manual control over gear changes, as well as a Sport button on the dash that re-programmed the tranny, throttle and steering to be more responsive, but at no point did the subcompact car elicit any grins with the pedal down to the floor. The Fiat's 101 horses felt as though they were working overtime whenever they were called upon to provide additional forward momentum. In contrast, the 500's brakes were exceptionally strong, inspiring confidence and providing ample stopping power in a variety of different situations.
Ride comfort was also not up to expectations. Montreal streets are a torture test for any suspension system, but the Fiat 500 proved to be more sensitive to bump steer and rattling over potholes and asphalt insults than other subcompact options driven in the same type of environment. The car's chassis never begged to be flogged, and when close to the limits the 500 actually had most of us backing off rather than pushing further. Even on the highway the Fiat did not feel 100 percent composed. Surprisingly, for a small vehicle with the wheels at each corner, the 500 in Lounge trim didn’t ignite any fires in the souls of those who took it for a spin.
Fuel mileage, on the other hand, was as-advertised: the Fiat 500 consumed very little gas during its week-long stay in our stables, which was a welcome consolation after our disappointment in its dynamics.
As with all small cars, safety is an important concern to potential Fiat 500 buyers. The 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge comes with a full array of airbags (front, front side, side curtain, and even a driver's side knee unit) to help keep occupants fully protected should the unthinkable occur. The Fiat also features electronic stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is in a difficult position. The car is stunningly attractive from the outside, but it doesn't deliver the kind of driving thrills hinted at by its seductive good looks. The hatchback is saddled with semi-premium pricing, yet doesn't offer the same kind of interior room and comfort provided by several of its rivals. From a fuel mileage perspective, the Fiat gets good marks but is matched or beaten by larger subcompacts that come with legitimate four-passenger seating as well as more spacious cargo accommodations and a higher level of available equipment - often at a lower MSRP.
"Because it's beautiful" is never a bad reason for buying a car. However, in the entry-level subcompact market, beauty must be tempered with practicality, day-to-day comfort, and above all value, which are all areas where the Fiat 500 falls short.