With the success of the MINI Cooper, Smart ForTwo, and other small-but-very-fuel-efficient cars, the news that an American version of the Italian-spec 2011 Fiat 500 may be coming to the U.S. as early as the end of 2010 has caused more than a few automotive reviewers to stop and think. Will the tiny car be a hit with American consumers?
Why Fiat, why now?
The merger of Chrysler and Fiat involves a lot of restructuring, product mix changes, and a possible revitalization of the Chrysler brand in America. In Europe, the Fiat 500 is a very popular model and the thinking is that it could be in the States as well.
In fact, there’s some basis for the optimism. The same person who designed the MINI Cooper, Frank Stephenson, configured the Italian-spec Fiat 500, a two-door, front-wheel drive hatchback with three available engines. Chances are, though, that only the 94-hp top-of-the-line 1.4-liter engine would show up on Fiat 500s stateside. As far as fuel economy goes, this engine achieves an estimated 40 miles per gallon or more on the highway.
What would the product lineup look like for the Fiat 500? According to recent reports, the car will be available in four trims – sport, hatchback, convertible, and wagon. The initial – and mainstay offering – will likely be the two-door hatchback. For comparison purposes, the hatch is about 5 inches shorter, 3.2 inches taller, and more than an inch slimmer than the MINI Cooper equivalent. It is also about 300 pounds lighter.
Can Americans get over Fiat's past?
So far, so good. Everything sounds like the performance, fuel economy, and model lineup should appeal to U.S. consumers. But initial reports and estimates are one thing. Actually delivering a product that American car shoppers want, feel they have a need for, and perceive to have good value is part of a complex equation for which the jury is still out.
Many Americans have less than fond memories of Fiat products that were last available in the U.S. more than 25 years ago, this reporter among them. My own experience with Fiat brings to mind a car that couldn’t get out of its own way, frequently broke down, and parts were costly and difficult to obtain. Beyond that, I wasn’t particulaly enamored of the style or comfort. It was, however, a cheap car – meaning, I could afford it (until the repair bills began to mount).
But times certainly change and, in line with that recognition, perhaps consumer sentiment about Fiat will as well. After all, Fiat is certainly a major player in Europe. And Chrysler can use a perky, fun new car to jazz up its model offerings.
Is the Fiat 500 a good family car?
My advice would be to take a wait-and-see approach. Wait for the opportunity to take a test drive. See if the performance and driving dynamics match your expectations for a super small car. Feel whether or not it’s comfortable enough for you and other members of your family (the 2011 Fiat 500 seats four). And be sure that the price is appropriate for the family budget.
Who knows, this new-for-the-States Fiat 500 may be just the right car to add to the family car mix? On the other hand, you’ll have to wait also for reliability data to see if it’s really a good deal. And there’s also the styling. If retro continues to be popular, maybe 2011 Fiat 500 will be a sleeper hit with American consumers. Time will tell.