Launched a couple of years ago in Italy, the 500 is philosophically akin to BMW's Mini: a modern take on a motoring icon.
The original 1957 Nuova 500 was an inexpensive city car, the Italian counterpart to the Volkswagen Beetle in Germany, Citroën 2CV in France and Austin Mini in England. It put Italy on wheels in the late 1950s and '60s and there are still plenty of well-loved examples scooting around the world today.
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Could it be a real alternative to not only existing urban cars like the Mini Cooper and Honda Fit, but also new competition like next-year's Ford Fiesta or upcoming Volkswagen Polo?
And can the 500 erase the poor reliability, Fix-It-Again-Tony impression left from the last Fiats sold here?
Based on our time in the car, we think Fiat has a chance.
Although the original 1957-1975 iteration had a sub-500 cc, two-cylinder engine mounted in the rear, the new 500 is a modern fron
t-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-seater.
In addition to the three-door hatchback, a folding fabric roof 500C Convertible and a Mini Cooper S-fighting 500 Abarth model just went on sale in Europe this summer.
In Italy, the 500 is available with a range of four-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines.
The base 69 hp 1.2 L gas model is available in Italy for about $17,500 (Canadian). At the top, the 135 hp Abarth goes for about the same as a $24,900 118 hp Mini Cooper.
For our four days of driving in and then around Rome, and then north into the Chianti region between Sienna and Florence, we had a mid-level Fiat 500 1.4 Sport.
With 100 hp and 97 lb.-ft. of torque from its 1.4-litre gas engine matched to a six-speed manual transmission, we think the 500 Sport would make a good starting point for North American drivers. With (hopefully) cheaper Mexican labor costs,
a below-$20,000 starting price (right where a Honda Fit Sport starts, and $3,000 less than a Mini Cooper Classic) would make the Fiat competitive.
Like the Mini and Fit, though, the 500 offers a premium driving experience in a small package. Really small.
The 500 is about 90 mm taller, yet 130 mm shorter, than a Mini. Unlike the minimalist original, the modern Fiat Panda-based 500 is sophisticated in its engineering and finish. And safe.
Seven airbags are on board, as are anti-lock brakes and stability control. In European NCAP crash testing, the 500 received a maximum five-star rating.
If Fiat can keep the same level of quality with its North American-built version as it did with our Polish-made tester, based on the Chrysler current lineup, the 500 would end up as one of the best-finished Chryslers in some time ? better than BMW's Mini.
The cabin is solid and rattle-free. Visibility is excellent. The doors shut with a comforting thunk. And, if more upright than the Mini, the 500's driving position is bang on.
Our tester (one of the rare 500s we saw in Italy that wasn't painted in iPod white) came with a beautifully finished two-tone brown exterior and a black leather interior.
The retro-designed body-colour painted dash and pizza-plate sized speedo is offset by up-to-date touches such as a chunky gear shift knob, trip computer and a multifunction steering wheel.
Front occupants are well treated in the Fiat. But the rounded rear hatch has chopped rear headroom. Unlike the Mini, though, those above the age of 10 will find sufficient legroom in the back. Trunk space ? with the two fold-down rear seats up ? is enough for a pair of overnight carry-on bags.
Whether it was dicing in Rome's hectic streets, keeping up with 130 km/h autostrada traffic, or slicing through the valleys from one hilltop medieval Tuscan town to another, the 500 1.4 Sport drove as well as it was finished.
Okay. It's not as good as a Mini Cooper. But it's a lot more charming.
With weighty and accurate steering, the diminutive 500 was easy to place on narrow Tuscany hill roads.
It didn't comer as flat as a Mini, but the Fiat's handling was balanced, with minimal understeer, and begged the driver to explore its limits.
While, at the same time, it delivered a more comfortable ride than a Mini.
The 500 Sport may have less juice than a Mini Cooper. It'll take about 10 seconds to get from zero to 100 km/h ? about half-a-second slower than the Cooper.
But the 1.4 unit lives to be zinged to its 7,000 rpm limit, then it knows when to be quiet in six-gear highway cruising mode.
The short-throw, dash-mounted shifter is quick and accurate. And the Fiat weighs less than the BMW city car by almost 200 kg. That alone makes it a riot to nip through traffic or clip mountain road apexes.
Based on the product alone, we think Fiat has a winner in the 500. Especially in 1.4 Sport trim. As a less expensive alternative to a Mini, the 500 has its own set of la dolce vita charms.
The heavy work now will be in the Fiat and Chrysler marketing and sales departments.
By the time the 500 goes on sale, badged as a Chrysler , the small car market looks to be red hot with new and interesting options.
Can Fiat convince North Americans to buy a car smaller than a Mini?
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