Nearly 30 years after Fiat sold its last car in the U.S., the 2012 Fiat 500 officially makes its debut at the Los Angeles auto show. Cute as a button-or at least a New Beetle or Mini Cooper-the 500 will be powered by a 101-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder with 97 lb-ft of torque when it goes on sale in January. The little four-cylinder is assembled in Dundee, Michigan, and utilizes variable valve timing and lift to achieve a best of 29 mpg city and 37 highway when equipped with the manual transmission. A multinational effort, the 500 is being assembled in Toluca, Mexico, in the factory that used to screw together Chrysler's PT Cruiser.Fiat's return to America starts with the tiny and very cute 500. Smaller than a Mini Cooper, the 500 has been on sale outside the U.S. for a few years now, which hopefully means the Italians have gotten the quality right. Power will come from a 1.4-liter four initially; a turbo model may follow.
Our 500 is not exactly the same as the car sold in Europe. To pass more stringent crash regulations in the U.S., the 500 has a new rear structure and a slightly different torsion-beam rear-suspension design. Other differences between the U.S. and European versions are mostly related to comfort: wider and flatter seats, more sound-deadening material, and the addition of an armrest for the driver. Mechanically, a conventional six-speed automatic transmission will be available. Fiat's tuning of the chassis and electric power steering are slightly different as well, with the latter actually being slightly quicker than the European steering.
Pop, Lounge, and Sport
Three trim levels will be available. The most basic will be called Pop, and it starts at $16,000. Standard equipment will include air conditioning, 15-inch steel wheels, stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, seven airbags, power windows and locks, and a tire-repair kit. For those who demand more luxury in their tiny Italian cars-and who doesn't?-Fiat will offer the $20,000 Lounge trim level, which adds a fixed glass roof, 15-inch aluminum wheels, satellite radio, fog lights, a Bose audio system, leather seats and steering wheel, cruise control, Bluetooth, and a USB port for MP3-player integration.
The version we're most likely to plunk down our lira for is the $18,000 model. Fiat calls it Sport, but it's not any more powerful than the other 500 models; the moniker comes from the firmer suspension tune. Additionally, the Sport is upgraded from the Pop with 16-inch aluminum wheels, red brake calipers, unique front and rear fascias, a Bose audio system, and Bluetooth. Options available among the various trim levels include heated seats, a removable navigation system by TomTom, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, an $850 power sunroof, and the automatic transmission for $1000.
Retro Car, Retro Colors
For personalization, buyers of the 500s will have their choice of 14 colors (including four retro colors that were available on the original 500), four different interior colors, and a customization program that will allow them to select from several different body graphics. Clearly, Fiat is following Mini's game plan, which allows buyers to express their personalities by putting stripes or other embellishments on their cars.
The 500 will be joined by the 500C convertible (it's really more like a giant fabric sunroof) in the summer of 2011. Those seeking more power may want to wait until the fall of 2011 when the 500 Abarth goes on sale. Fiat has not yet announced how much power or even what engine will be under the U.S.-market Abarth's hood, but we're expecting around 170 hp from a turbocharged version of the standard car's 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. An electric version of the 500 will arrive at the end of 2012, and Fiat promises to produce 5400 of these in the first full year of production. Considering the unknown interest in a microcar from an Italian brand with a shoddy reputation amongst those consumers who have heard of it, that number might be better applied as a decent first-year sales goal for all 500s. But given this car's cute looks, individualization options, and forthcoming Abarth version, Fiat's American future is certainly brighter than it was 30 years ago.