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2012 Fiat 500 (Barry Hathaway/Chrysler)
2012 Fiat 500 (Barry Hathaway/Chrysler)

2012 Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat 500 a compact cutie Add to ...

It’s a goofy-looking little car, one shaped a little like an oversized salt shaker, yet somehow the design of this quirky little Fiat 500 commuter car comes off as Audrey Hepburn charming.

Why? In the car business, it’s always about the alchemy of art/design and marketing. Get that formula right and …

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“The Cinquecento should be easy to sell,” Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics, has said. “It’s chock full of character and has lots of features and value for its price.”

Laura Soave, who heads Fiat in North America, told Bloomberg something similar, but more in corporate-speak: “Our customer doesn't want a grey or beige car that they see 400,000 of on the road. Our customer feels a connection with their brands. The things they buy say something about them.”

Well, exactly. Quite honestly, the Cinquecento – pronounced “ching-kwa-chen-toe” which is Italian for 500 – is not a car you buy using logic alone. It’s a mini-car that starts at $15,995 and if you option it up in any big way, the final price will land north of $20,000. You are most definitely saying something about yourself when you buy a 500.

We are talking about a very small car, one with a 101-horsepower engine. Yes, of course fuel economy is excellent (6.7 litres/100 km in the city, 5.1 highway using regular gas). But the first Fiat sold here in North America in nearly three decades is not about saving gas; it’s about setting the stage for the relaunch of an entire Italian brand of cars.

Fiat runs the Chrysler Group, so there is something big at work here – the expansion of Fiat and even Alfa Romeo across Canada and the United States and Mexico. Built in Toluca, Mexico, the 500 is undeniably cute – a feel-good car. The line will expand, too, with an “Abarth” high-performance model and an electric version coming next year.

Our 500, by the way, looks exactly like the European one, though here we get a more fuel-efficient and more powerful engine, a padded and lined cargo area and more. The idea is to make sure the 500 doesn’t look or feel like a cheap hatchback to North Americans.

And it doesn’t. Fiat’s MultiAir engine technology is pretty advanced, using sensors in each cylinder to adjust – via hydraulic links – intake-valve settings to improve performance while providing more power. So why doesn’t the 500 get the magic sub-5.0 litres/100 km on the highway? Good question to ask when others like the Hyundai Accent do.

I do like the six-speed gearbox; it’s a tidy little shifter. The ride is comfortable, the seats decently supportive. Fiat wisely installed a pod of cup holders up front and added two more in the rear. There is a decent glove box, too – one with a door, unlike in Europe.

More than anything, though, the 500’s soft, round roofline is its most distinguishing characteristic. There is nothing else like it for sale in Canada. Young females will surely love it; macho guys, not so much. We’re talking chick car of the highest order.

What will that means for sales? If women’s magazines have it right, the ones that readily tout the 87 per cent of households where car-buying decisions are dominated by women, then the 500 should be a smash.

So we have a charismatic, fuel-efficient and incredibly cute little car with a nice little back story: the original put the Italian masses on wheels, just like the Beetle did for the Germans and the Mini for the Brits. Approximately four million were sold between 1958 and 1975.

The question on the lips of those who remember Fiats sold in North America back in the day is this: Will it be reliable, or will buyers return to the Fiat days of “Fix It Again, Tony?” No one has an answer to that question, yet; the 500 has not been on sale here long enough to know – there is no reliability data yet available.

The car looks and feels solid enough, though. The materials and workmanship are better than anything Tony fixed three decades ago.

Take the interior. The tachometer-within-the-speedometer instrument cluster is nicely done and I like the body-colour dash trim housing three nice-looking buttons for the Sport mode, hazards and rear defrost. Oddly, you won’t find knobs here; buttons do everything in this cabin, even when you adjust the stereo volume.

On the other hand, if you are a big person, you will find the interior small – tiny, actually. If you’re tall, you’ll want more headroom, too. The massive B-pillar creates a giant blind spot on the driver’s side.

In traffic, the 500 is nimble but not fast. You will need 10-plus seconds to get to 100 km/h when the light turns green from red. A Mazda2 is quicker, by comparison, and costs less. In the urban rush, however, the 500’s narrow body and quick electric power steering are ideal.

The 500 story, then, is all about driving a little car with a high cute factor, very good fuel economy and in-the-city handling. Cars with style and attitude are rarely cheap, however – not unlike some of the women I have known over the years. When cold, hard logic comes into play, the Fiat 500 is challenged.

But plenty of people buy on emotion, right? And that’s where the 500 has something to offer.

jcato@globeandmail.com\Tech specs 2012 Fiat 500 Sport

Type: Mini-car

Price: $18,500 ($1,400 freight)

Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 101 hp/98 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/5.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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