Italian Renaissance

Fiat Returns to America
or Everything Old is Nuova Again

New 500 happy faceIt’s no secret. I’m a gearhead, a certified lifer.

My first bicycle was a compilation of parts I’d gathered from neighborhood junk piles. I took apart a Lawn Boy engine at the age of 9. And my first motorcycle was delivered to me on my 14th birthday. In three boxes (turned out Dad had accepted it as payment for back rent from a deadbeat tenant). It took me a few weeks, but I managed to put it back together with a little help from a neighbor with an arc welder.

Turning wrenches, getting greasy or adding needless accessories occupied our spare time. It was the Seventies and that was what teenage boys did.

One day I bought a broken Fiat Spider planning to fix it up and sell it. Turned out I met my future wife in that car. Jackie was suitably impressed with the red convertible, so I kept it longer than intended. Eventually I became infatuated with little Italian cars and owned dozens over the years- mostly clapped-out Fiats, a Lancia or two and a slew of Alfa Romeos. I was hooked.

Fiats abound in front of Maduko circa 1991

It got so bad that it became a business in 1989. For more than 9 years my loving (and tolerant) wife helped me operate an automotive shop down in Tulsa’s Brady District called Maduko. We sold parts and accessories for the funny little cars from Italy. Today that building is a brick-oven pizza joint called Hey Mambo. Just inside the door you’ll notice a large graphic depicting the Alfa Romeo factory in Milano, an homage to the automotive endeavors that once occurred at this address. But those days are long gone.

It’s been almost thirty years since Fiat stopped selling cars in the US. The only Italian cars sold in America these days are high-end Ferraris and a handful of Lamborghinis and Maseratis. But this Spring marked the return of one of the world’s largest automakers to the American market, with a retro little coupe called the Fiat 500.

Rex pilots the new Fiat 500This new car has been a hit in Europe since its introduction in 2007. Its styling is a full-on replay of the iconic 1957 Fiat 500, a car many consider the VW of Italy. The two-cylinder engine displaced 479cc, thus the model’s name: 500, or cinquecento in Italian. The spartan four-seater was powered by an air-cooled engine mounted in the rear- much like a Volkswagen- and was designed as affordable transportation for the masses- like a Volkswagen. Though never sold here in large numbers, the 500 was produced for more than 20 years, and millions were sold worldwide.

If you’re still not convinced of its iconic status, consider this: the character Luigi in the movie Cars was a 1959 Fiat 500. Nuff said.

The return of the Fiat badge to the American market prompted Jackie and me to wonder how the new 500 would stack up to our 21st century expectations. Our own fond memories of Fiats may differ from those of most Americans. The oft-maligned sports cars of the Seventies earned the reputation that FIAT stood for “Fix It Again Tony.” Would the new car dispel this less-than-stellar reputation?

Fiat 500 Engine BayToday’s 500 has won high praise in Europe over the last 3 years. It may look like the original, but the engine is now up front and a good deal larger. And that bubbly, happy look is the same. Even the dashboard echoes the body color- a trait of the original (although the new one isn’t made of steel for safety reasons). Special trim packages even offer bakelite-look interior appointments. Projector headlamps keep the “eyeballs” small and the “face” friendly. The grille is so close to the original that it’s easy to mistake the new Fiat for a classic 500!

The overall size of the car is smaller than a Mini and larger than a Smart. But inside it’s larger than either, and “feels” bigger than both combined. The tall roof makes the interior feel spacious for such a small car (unless you opt for the sunroof which deducts inches from the headroom). Folding my 6’ 4” frame into the 500 was no problem at all. Jackie and I both found entry and egress easier than cars much larger. Once inside the seats are firm but comfortable- the pilot seat includes a vertical tilt adjustment and a small armrest I initially found amusing. We thought the seating was excellent for a car in this class.

Passengers in the back seat however may not share that opinion. Folding the front seats forward is accomplished with a convenient handle up high on the seat back. On the driver’s side the mechanism even has a “mechanical memory” that returns the seat to the same angle and position. While it’s possible to move the front seats forward enough to make room in back, I’m guessing most owners will consider the rear area for groceries only.

500 visits Loy LakeFurther back- but not much further- is the trunk. The 500 is technically a hatchback and the hatch is huge. The space underneath it though… eh, not so much. Although folding down the back seats expands the cargo capacity quite a bit, they don’t lie completely flat. So if you plan to go to Ikea, we recommend the optional roof rack.

Driving the Fiat 500 is a joy. The engine produces 101 horsepower, so the little car can scoot, but honestly it’s in no danger of snapping your neck out of joint. The 1.4 liter revs like crazy and is responsive throughout the RPM range. It moves the little Fiat around the city with verve and vigor. But it can be frustrating on the highway if you don’t keep up a good head of steam. Jackie noticed the cruise control would often “overshoot” whenever we crested a hill.

Steering is tight and linear, but the electric power steering is almost too light for my taste. Pushing the Sport button on the dash removes virtually all slop, changes the transmission’s shift points and puts the 500 in full go-kart mode. Driving around the neighborhood in this mode feels almost manic- but slice through some twisties and it’s bellisimo. A six-speed automatic was developed for the American version, and it shifts the rev-happy engine pretty aggressively, though you can slide the knob to the left and flip the gears up or down on your own. Buyers wanting even more control can opt for a 5-speed manual, plus enjoy 38 MPG on the highway.

White Rock LakeCurrently Fiat offers three trim levels: Pop, Lounge and Sport. Prices start at $15,500. Additionally there is the standard hardtop and a rollback sunroof model called the Cabriolet, or 500C. All of them use the same 1.4 liter Multiair engine built in Michigan, and the cars are built by Chrysler in a plant in Mexico. Hello, global economy!

The example we drove was a Sport with the taughter suspension and go-fast 16” wheels. I found the ride firm, maybe too firm for the average Cute Car Buyer. But most critics agree the standard models don’t have the sharper handling of the Sport model. So the real question is whether Boy Racer who wants the performance will be satisfied with the 101 HP? If not then wait until Spring 2012 when the 170 HP Abarth version comes to the States.

Fifty years ago the Fiat 500’s primary competition was the Austin Mini and Volkswagen Beetle. The new Fiat 500 will also compete for buyers with the New Beetle and Mini Cooper, and just like the original, it is priced well below those models. Only time will tell how American buyers take to the new 500. But so far I’d say they have a winner.

Oklahoma currently has two Fiat Studios- Fiat of Edmond on North Broadway Extension and Chris Nikels Fiat on South Memorial in Tulsa.

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