Fiat 500: Retro cute and fun

 It’s the Italian Mini Cooper: Retro-cute, fun-to-drive small, and super-stingy with gas. And if all goes well, it will be coming to you from a U.S. or Mexican plant, most likely one that currently makes Chrysler products. But will you care that it’s a Fiat?

Remember Fiat? Many Americans would just as soon forget the Italian automaker that stumbled along as a U.S.-market also-ran against Volkswagen, Toyota, and other mainstream import cars. Remember the joke about Fiat meaning “Fix It Again, Tony”? That was the American rap on these cars: Mechanical maladies, early rust, poor resale value, and mediocre service from a rag-tag dealer body. Fiat struggled in the U.S. market for the better part of three decades before finally giving up nearly 25 years ago. Fellow countryman Alfa Romeo followed in the early 1990s, leaving only big-bucks Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini to represent Italia.

But times change and so do car companies. Today, Fiat is once again a major player on the world automotive stage and financially healthier than it’s been in years. This dramatic comeback is widely credited to Sergio Marchionne, the Italian-Canadian turnaround specialist who took over in 2004 as CEO of Fiat Auto Group, the vehicle division of the Fiat SpA combine. Wasting no time, Marchionne restructured operations and finances, wrangled a $2 billion payoff

from General Motors to end a disappointing joint venture, and got his designers and engineers cracking on more-competitive products, starting with a well-received new compact car, the Grande Punto. More recently, Fiat formed a global strategic alliance with Chrysler. Future product plans have yet to be finalized, but early reports say Fiat products and platforms will play a significant part in future Chrysler offerings.

Cheerful  Reincarnation
Now comes a shrewd and timely reincarnation of the petite Fiat 500, the cheap-and-cheerful Cinquecento (say “cheen-kay-CHEN-toh”) that put Italy on wheels after World War II. As with BMW’s revival of the iconic British Mini, the new 500 isn’t a copy of a beloved original (sold from 1957-75) but a thoroughly modern small car with premium engineering and retro-chic styling. And it’s proving to be a Mini-size sales success. Though launched only in July 2007, the reborn 500 has drawn nearly a quarter-million orders to date. That’s about 60,000 more than planned yearly production, which means there’s a waiting list in Europe. Of course, car companies love it when demand exceeds supply, hence reports that Fiat won’t increase production anytime soon for Europe.

But the U.S. is another matter, and the company sees the reborn Cinquecento as a good way to re-enter the world’s richest car market promises.

There are some interesting parallels between the British-sourced Mini and the expected U.S.-built 2011 Fiat 500. First, both were designed by Frank Stephenson, who joined Fiat after creating the 2002 Mini.

As a 2-door hatchback, which will surely be the mainstay seller.Fiat 500 is about 5 inches shorter, over an inch slimmer, and 3.2 inches taller than the equivalent Mini Cooper. It’s also lighter by about 300 pounds. Both cars have front-wheel drive, pert retro styling, and seating for four. But where the Mini is built on a purpose-designed platform, the 500 shares underpinnings with Fiat’s entry-level Panda. That means, among other things, a choice of three 4-cylinder engines, including a base 59-horsepower 1.2-liter unit and a 1.3-liter intercooled turbodiesel with 68 horses and a class-respectable 107 pound-feet of torque.

Driving It Around
It is the Fiat 500’s ride and handling that sets this car apart. The structure is remarkably stiff, giving the 500 a grown-up feel from the driver seat. The wide track and comparatively long wheelbase endow it with a firmly planted sensation and deliver excellent stability at high speeds. Small it may be, but the 500 devours big distances with real aplomb.

For all the visual charm provided by the Fiat 500’s exterior, it is the quality of the interior that wins our heart. The love affair starts the moment you draw open the door via a lovely metal handle and slide onto the softly cushioned driver seat. The dashboard recalls that of the Cinquecento, yet plays host to a large instrument pod with futuristic gauges.

Given its compact dimensions, there is ample space and a good deal of seat adjustment. In fact, interior packaging appears to be one of the 500’s biggest assets. You sit well back in the chassis in a rather upright position, but it’s comfortable all the same, with spongy seat cushions and a high-mounted gearlever well within reach.