Fiat 500: Budget-wise and Mini-splendored

RETRO AND READY: The Fiat 500, reviving the classic look of the postwar Nuova 500, is a car America could really use.
(Dan Neil/ Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Where are the hot-cool small cars, the drive-all-night cars, the panties-on-the-mirror cars? Where they’ve always been: In Europe. Here’s a look at two of them: The Fiat 500 and the Alfa Romeo MiTo.

Milan, Italy

Cute? Think a bunny in bib overalls, a box of bright yellow Easter chicks, a cement mixer full of Christmas kittens. Oh, my God. The Fiat 500 -- also known as Cinquecento, which is Italian for coed flypaper -- is about as adorable as it gets.

I belong to the Merry Fools for Fiat Club. My first car was a 1971 Fiat Spider, whose crankshaft went China syndrome on me the day after I bought it. Rebuilt it, blew it up again, rebuilt it, crashed it. Arrivederci, Spider. My next car was a Fiat 131 sedan, a sensational-handling car that -- though I didn’t know it at the time -- was the precursor to hot compact sedans like the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru WRX. The 131 was taken away from me when I was spotted coming around a corner on two wheels. You cannot begin to imagine the sense of demotion I felt when I got into a Datsun B210.

So I’ve got my Fix-It-Again-Tony stripes, and I acknowledge partisanship. Still, if I could magically open a Fiat dealership in Santa Monica with 500s on the lot, I could be a rich man. This is the car Los Angeles has been panting for.

A loving and faithful riff on the classic rear-engine Nuova 500 of postwar Italy, the 500 yanks the same heartstrings of misty nostalgia as the BMW Mini and Volkswagen New Beetle. The operative alchemy is to take the shape, the profile, the conformation of a historic car, in every sense an icon, then make it bigger, enamelize it with modern aerodynamics, instill a sense of winking irony to it, and stick it on a cheap, well-sorted platform. The 500 is based on the Fiat Panda platform and is, mechanically, an unremarkable front-drive subcompact with remarkable fuel economy. With gas selling for around $8 per gallon on the Continent, the Panda has been a big hit for Fiat. The 500 -- Europe’s Car of the Year, a kind of Panda with a post-grad education -- has been even bigger.

Available with 1.2- and 1.4-liter gas engines and an excellent 1.3-liter turbodiesel (five- and six-speed manual transmissions), the 500 would represent, for the American driver, something of an adjustment. I drove the turbo- diesel (68 hp, 107 pound-feet of torque) from Milan to Modena a couple of weeks ago, and the car requires a considerable winding of the big key in its back to get it to accelerate. I had to adjust my driving style to allow for the more leisurely pace. On the other hand, once ramped up, the thing cruised along the autostrada at over 100 mph while getting about 45 miles per gallon. Such are the marvels of a 2,150-pound curb weight.

The car is squat and wide, with a well-planted feel that surprises, given its toy-like proportions. The power steering has a city-assist switch that increases boost, to allow for easier parking. Obviously, the 500 is no sports car, but it’s got a lively, wide-awake feel at the tiller that is part of its overall vividness.

The bubble-like cabin is spacious, with loads of sit-upright room in the front seats and usable room for two in the back (the rear seat back is bolt upright to yield a few precious inches to the luggage compartment). The interior styling is Milanese retro-modern, with a lovely satiny Bakelite material covering the dash. An oversized, Mini-like instrument cluster combines the speedometer and tachometer readouts.

Like the Mini -- except about $5,000 cheaper to start -- the 500 has the kind of design that makes owning it an occasion. It’s fun to look at, fun to drive, fun to point out to the valet. It all goes to the fact that cheap cars need not be bitter pills of self-denial.

The prospects for the Fiat 500 (built in Poland, by the way) being sold in the United States are pretty iffy, but the odds are improving. In the current climate, a small, super-efficient car with global charisma -- one that undercuts the BMW Mini -- might present Fiat with, as they say in certain quarters, an offer it cannot refuse.

2008 Fiat 500 Base price: $16,500 (est.)Price, as tested: $19,000Powertrain: 1.2-liter SOHC inline four-cylinder; 1.4-liter DOHC inline four; 1.3-liter turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine; five- and six-speed manual transmissions; front-wheel driveHorsepower: 68 at 5,000 rpm (turbo-diesel)Torque: 107 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm (turbo-diesel)Wheelbase: 90.6 inchesLength: 139.8 inchesFuel economy: 36 to 53 mpgFinal thoughts: Grande latte in an espresso cup