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2012 FIAT 500 Comfort & Quality

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The 2012 Fiat 500 maxes out its interior space, but the passenger package isn't quite as roomy as a Ford Fiesta--which means all kinds of compromises on whom and what you bring along for the ride.

Let's start in the back, for a change. Lift the 500's hatch by pulling on the sweetly detailed hatch latch that curves around the number "500," and there's a moment of...well it's not disbelief. This is a subcompact, after all, but the sheer smallness of the cargo space behind the rear seats will remind you that downsizing from a MacBook Pro to a MacBook Air might just have benefits you never thought of. It's a scant 9.5 cubic feet that's deeper at the cargo floor than at the roofline; so long as you're toting scale models of pyramids, it's all good.

Think small and edit your carry-ons if you want to be comfortable in the 2012 Fiat 500.

The back seat...sits closely to the front seats. Its best purpose in daily use will be flipped down, augmenting the cargo space, rendering the 500 a two-seater in most cases. That it's still more functional than a two-seat Honda CR-Z (and more fuel-efficient, sometimes) is striking. If you're more than moderately American in height and girth, you just won't fit in the 500's back seat. It's a space that confines even more than the not-much-larger space in a Ford Fiesta, since there aren't extra doors to fudge the entry and exit. Of course, if you've paid the price for fashion with Italian shoes, squeezing in here will seem less cruel. Briefly.

The front seats are where most of us will breathe a sigh of relief. There's more cubic feet spread around, particularly on the passenger side. Still, I've never driven a vehicle, save for the classic Japan-only Suzuki Cappuccino roadster, where I've experienced less knee room. The lack of horizontal space behind the wheel can make it difficult to place a foot on the accelerator, since the center dash stack bows out into leg space. Headroom is a problem that only the metal-roof 500 can cure--even in models with the glass roof, the 500's ceiling is so close to its high-mounted seats, that anyone over 5' 8" will notice how close it sits to their scalp. You haven't seen hysterical until you've seen another media outlet's 6' 8" reporter try to wedge into the 500--until you've seen him try the same in the even smaller, vintage Fiat 500. The driver seat on Sport models is height-adjustable, but not nearly enough to make a big difference.

Once you're used to the 500's cramped cockpit, the colorful trim lightens the mood and the seats earn valuable feel-good points. They're much better shaped and fitted than the barstools in the Fiesta--and the 500 makes the best of cheap headrests by molding the plastic pieces into clever circles. And if you end up using the driver-side armrest from the passenger seat, you won't feel any more crowded than in the average coach-class 757, now, will you?

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