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Americans bring muscle, the Germans engineering might, and the Asian brands, reliability. So...what's left for the Italians to bring back to the U.S. car party?
If you can indulge us one more stereotype, we'll go with style. Italian automakers may never have been known for world-class quality, or for brilliant marketing, but the eye for a finely turned turn signal, or a pure side-glass silhouette? That's all Italian, all the time from Ferrari right down to this pert little hatchback with the weight of Fiat's rebirth all on its very small back. Va bene? Va bene.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is out in the wild now, streaming out of more than a hundred new Fiat showrooms across the country, as Chrysler and Fiat firm up their alliance and find new, inventive ways to get high-gas-mileage cars to America quickly. The 500's been on sale for years in Europe; now it's been engineered to meet U.S. safety and marketing standards, and to be built in a North American plant, too.
It could hardly have arrived at a better time. Gas prices are over $3 a gallon, and the 500's nearly 40-mpg fuel economy gives it at least one convincing argument to park itself in the garages of small-car buyers everywhere. But unlike other subcompact buyers with big EPA numbers, the 500 has a heady dose of style, from its heritage-induced proportions to the mix-and-match color play of its pint-sized interior.
The hurdles it faces are pretty big ones, for a car so tiny, and for a brand that left the American market more than 20 years ago with a hideous reputation for build quality and reliability. The 500 is almost a two-seater, by American standards, and a small one at that. It's engaging to drive, if you're used to the subcompact drudgery of the Yaris or the Fit or the Aveo. And it comes packaged with the features that have become essential in our daily lives--stuff like Bluetooth and aux jacks.
No one can predict if this truly is the tide-turning moment for small cars in the States. And the 500 will thrive or not, based on a momentous swing in drivers' tastes.
But if they have great taste, the Fiat 500 will stand out from the likes of the Aveo and Yaris, even the Fiesta. It's a small piece of art, even more inside than out--with only a T.J. Maxx pricetag keeping it out of an industrial-design museum.
- Brilliant interior styling
- Expressive sheetmetal
- Rev-happy four-cylinder
- Meaty steering feel
- Smart bundles of features
Next: Interior / Exterior »
- It's really, really tiny inside!
- Not slow, but not at all quick
- Good gas mileage, not stellar