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2012 Fiat 500

Fiat 500: an adorable taste of Italy Add to ...

My first encounter with the Fiat Cinquecento was in 1996 after my first trip to Italy. To celebrate completing my university degree, I bought three plane tickets for my parents and me to visit their tiny hometown in the Campagnia region of southern Italy.

There, the Cinquecento ruled the road – it was everywhere. My relatives all drove them.

Globe Video: Comparing the 2012 Fiat 500 to the original 1962 Cinquecento halo car

My cousin Maria and Antonio’s beige little Cinquecento was Barbie-like – tiny and whimsical, it whipped around deadly mountainous corners with ease and confidence. Jam packed liked sardines – five, sometimes six people crammed inside with no seat belts. I don’t know how we did it. But I fell in love with the Cinquecento instantly.

Back in Canada, my dad’s best friend Gerry still drives an old one. He’s a mechanic so it runs like a charm. And every time I see his little blue Cinquecento parked in front of dad’s place I grin from ear to ear.

Globe Video: The crowds in San Diego's Little Italy react to the Cinquecento, which will start at $15,995 in Canada

Italians adore the Cinquecento; when the original Fiat “Nuova” 500 hit the streets in 1957, it captured the hearts and minds of the nation. Nearly four million were produced from 1957 to 1975. It’s as much a part of Italy as red wine.

And now, after 27 years, Canadians will finally discover what all the fuss is about. The Fiat 500 finally returns to North America and, judging by the reaction of people on the streets of little Italy in San Diego, it’s a knockout.

I met Canadian-Italians Peter and Lou Trepanier from Leamington, Ont., who were strolling the streets of little Italy while on vacation; they immediately flocked to the Fiat, sharing fond memories of it. They drove it in Italy – 1,000 km over five weeks from Italy to the United Kingdom.

“It’s lots of fun! Our nickname for this was our little Singer Sewing Machine because it would zing and get us where we had to go,” says Peter. His wife jumps in excitedly, “It’s a great little car! I’d love to have one to drive around. You just take the corners so fast!”

Sure, Fiat got a bad rap when it first arrived here back in the 1980s – you remember the old saying, what does Fiat stand for? Fix It Again, Tony. Well it appears most people have forgotten its past mechanical woes and are ready to embrace the new and improved Fiat 500. It’s possible – after all, Canadians have accepted Hyundai despite its disastrous early Pony days.

“With the entry of the Fiat 500, it’s bringing small cars to a whole new level. Although it’s a small car, it’s a car with a pretty big personality,” says Reid Bigland, president and CEO of Chrysler Canada.

Brand new Sport, Pop and Lounge models fondly recall the Fiat 500's Italian history. Bob English takes you on a tour of the popular little go-getter.



The Fiat 500 is expressive in its design; it oozes Italian style and flare. Yet it’s modern and simple in a cute little package that’s instantly recognizable. It captures the original Cinquecento’s iconic good looks from the exterior and interior. There are funky 500 decals everywhere – on the front and rear tailgate, on the side of the front headlights, on the wheel covers and the dashboard. I wish they had added the Cinquecento nameplate, too, for extra authenticity. But I suppose 500 is easier to pronounce than Cinquecento.

Inside, it is well crafted and doesn’t look cheap; it feels expensive with chrome circular rings and solid buttons and gauges. The instrument panel is youthful and funky, matching the exterior colour. You can chose between 14 shades of the rainbow – my favourite is a toss-up between espresso (aka chocolate brown) and rame (aka copper) – and five wheel choices so you can make it your own.

It’s spacious inside – able to fit four people with some cargo space for a few grocery bags. You can flip the two rear seats down for more space. Adults can sit in the rear seats although I’d stick to short, quick trips. Kids would be more comfortable riding in the rear.

And just because it’s a small car, it isn’t boring to drive, especially when you have the five-speed manual transmission. I prefer it over the six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.

The Fiat 500 zips around town and corners like a little go-cart. For quicker gear changes, hit the sport button and it’s a more spirited ride. Under the hood is a 1.4-litre, four-cylinder engine that delivers 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. Don’t be disappointed by those numbers – it doesn’t lag behind the traffic or feel dull to drive. It can hold its own.

But the ride can be harsh or jarring at times, especially over potholes and other degradations in the road. While my driving partner complained constantly; I didn’t mind it. It actually reminded me of the original Cinquecento, adding some authenticity to the ride. And it’s very fuel-efficient – averaging only 5.1 litres/100 km in combined city/highway driving.

The Fiat comes in three models dubbed Pop, Sport and Lounge. Even the base model is well-equipped with more than 35 safety features including seven airbags, ABS, electronic stability control, traction control, hill start assist and a tire pressure monitoring system. It also comes with 15-inch wheels, remote keyless entry, power windows, door locks and mirrors. All that for $15,995.

The top of the line Lounge trim has it all – leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and a panoramic glass roof. And it won’t break the bank at $19,500.

“Fiat has always been about affordability. They want to make sure you don’t have to spend an awful lot of money to get beautiful design and safety features in a great stylish car,” says Laura Soave, head of Fiat Brand North America.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

2012 Fiat 500

Type: Two-door, four-passenger hatchback

Price range: $15,995-19,500

Engine: 1.4-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 101 hp/ 98 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with paddle shifters or five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 5.1 combined; regular gas

Alternatives: Mini Cooper, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2

Brand new Sport, Pop and Lounge models fondly recall the Fiat 500's Italian history. Bob English takes you on a tour of the popular little go-getter.

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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