The Fiat 500 set to invade American shores after a several-decade hiatus isn't the same car that's caught on in Europe. It's better, with more engine, revised suspension and upgraded safety. The Mini Cooper just got pwned.
Disclaimer: Chrysler and Fiat wanted us to drive the 500 and two other models enough that they flew me to San Diego, fed me Italian food and lodged me in a hotel with a sex-toy kit in the minibar. There are only so many things I'm willing to test drive; infidelity isn't one of them.
For as much as Italian culture has shaped American life, Italy's iconic automaker has never succeeded here; Fiat last departed in 1983, leaving behind more rusted and broken vehicles than a preschool sandbox. That's long enough for most of the "Fix it again, Tony" jokes to be contained to the greater New Jersey area, and to allow Fiat executives to dream of tempting young wealthy Americanos with its most stylish model, the reborn 500.
In Europe, the Cinquecento's revival from its 1957 roots has been di successo with 500,000 sold since 2007, especially among the smart set. But cuteness doesn't always translate, and even when it does it's not sufficient for U.S. audiences. Dozens of automakers have tried to squeeze this nation of calorically irresponsible drivers behind their wheels, only to meet with indifference or complaints of how hard it is to reach drive-thru windows. Does the 500 have a chance, especially when it looks like a Pixar rendering in metal?
It wouldn't if Fiat had followed its previous strategy: drive 500s from factory to boat, wave "Arrivederci!" and take a government-mandated Socialist smoke break. Instead, Fiat actually tried to adapt the 500 to American tastes, and found that in doing so managed to make the 500 better overall; most of the changes for the U.S. model will soon show up in the Old World. Overall, the changes for the U.S. market added about 80 pounds to the 500, and this is where we would usually invoke Colin Chapman and grouse about how Fiat only has the Olive Garden to blame, but Fiat also chose to increase the power.
While base 500 models in Europe can go as low as 69 hp, the only U.S. option for now is a 1.4 MultiAir four-cylinder, pumping 101 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque. Getting Americans to associate Fiat with reliable and cutting-edge engine technology would be a marketing accomplishment akin to a Details cover featuring the late Don Knotts. That said, Fiat engineers do share a cafeteria or two with Ferrari, and MultiAir qualifies as a real technical achievement.
The system replaces the overhead camshaft controlling the intake valves with hydraulic controllers, which allow infinitely variable timing of the air coming into the pistons. That lets the engine's computer to tailor combustion to the mood of the driver, getting out of the way at wide-open throttle while blipping the valves at other times for efficiency. It's quite trick — the engine head has a two-part casting, the oil in the hydraulics comes from the engine block, and there's a temperature sensor to get the oil at the right viscosity. (Fiat also joins the list of engine makes for which a broken timing belt means crunched valves, but those concerns should be 150,000 miles away.)
As for the transmissions, the 500 launches with only a 5-speed stick shift; the 6-speed Aisin automatic ordered for us lazy Americans will come on line shortly. The deck comes stacked against the stick, a long-throw operation whose clutch on a preproduction model was as jumpy as a barista at quitting time. The six-speed not only shifts smoother, it also responds to the invocation of a dash-button "Sport" mode at lower speeds. But it does come with a OPEC penalty; the hand-stirrer gets 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, while the automatic scores 27 mpg and 34 mpg.
The suspension of the 500 came in for a reworking as well; new bushings, springs, a rear torsion bar that's three times stiffer than the Euro version. All this work makes the 500 endlessly fun around tight corners, with predictable amounts of understeer but no body lean. Acceleration sounds more fun than the actual results suggest, with decent pull below 40 mph and more restrained performance north of that. Its biggest flaw appears on washboard freeways, where the short wheelbase simply can't soak up sharp sine waves. It's not as aggressive or as powerful as the Mini, but it's more livable.
Where Fiat scores its most style points is on the inside, where its combination of attractive, body-colored plastics and retro design make the Mini seem like its interiors were crafted by Fisher-Price. There's a few changes for the U.S. market; the optional leather-coated seats have been bolstered for those who don't buy skinny jeans, and the center cupholder can hold a Super Big Gulp, a.k.a. Cinquecento espressos. The dash and upright view make the 500's cabin a pleasant place to spend time, although trying to look over your shoulder at other traffic reveals a Big Gulp-sized blind spot.
The inside also incudes seven airbags turn a crashing 500 into a bouncy castle. The chassis received stiffening and a few extra parts to meet U.S. crash standards, enough so that a 500 that had gone through a 40-mph offset test could easily open and close its doors.
So although the 500 won't outrun the Mini today, that may change in the first quarter of 2012 when the 500 Abarth arrives hauling a turbo 1.4-liter MultiAir engine that could produce between 140 hp and 170 hp. A "cabrio" version will pop up at this year's New York Auto Show, and the battery-powered 500 will lug into dealers toward the end of next year.
Fiat's counting on Americans embracing small cars so much that the total demand for diminutive vehicles doubles by 2016. That seems optimistic absent a big boost in gas prices, and Fiat is selling style in a country that values size in its cars above all else. The 500 seems destined to become a fixture of the Al-Qaeda recruitment video known as MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," but there's a real car underneath the toy cuteness that's worth playing with.