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Little Retro Styled Hatchback Crowns Fiat's U.S. Comeback

Njuguna Kabugi | 5/22/2013, 8:42 p.m.
Fiat is using its Chrysler foothold in the United States to sell one of its own cars – the Fiat ...
Despite its tiny size, Fiat 500 offers a delightful balance that results in superb handling for this very small import. Courtesy Photo

Fiat is a very lucky automaker. It is not only generating great buzz in the United States auto market with the introduction of one of the hottest vehicles in the mini car segment – the 500, but the Italian automaker has also gained a controlling interest in Chrysler Motors, the smallest of Detroit's "big three" whose Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler vehicles have been selling quite well lately.

Car buyers with long memories may remember another phase of Fiat's life in the United States during the late 1970s. The company, whose name is an acronym for Fabrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Car Factory of Turin), was often panned in comedy circles as one that really stood for "Fix It Again Tony."

Plagued by low quality lackluster products and chronic breakdowns, the manufacturer's sales plunged from a high of 100,511 in 1975 to 14,113 in 1982. The next year, Fiat would leave the U.S. market.

Today's Fiat has undergone a sweeping transformation under Sergio Marchionne, an Italian-born Canadian who became CEO of the automaker in 2004. He has ushered in new talent and technology, pushing Fiat to a firmer footing in European and South American markets.

Now Fiat is using its Chrysler foothold in the United States to sell one of its own cars – the Fiat 500. The tiny, retro-styled mini car is designed by Frank Stephenson, the man behind BMW's transatlantic success with the MINI.

Thanks to high gasoline prices, Americans have re-discovered small cars and Fiat is lucky to have re-entered the U.S. with the 500. It competes well in a segment that is not only exciting but also growing fast. Some of the most daring bodies in the business are among the smallest – the Nissan Juke and Cube, the Smart Fortwo and Chevrolet Sonic ooze personality in a way few larger vehicles do. And, of course, the Fiat 500 matches and sometimes exceeds each of the competitors in many ways.

It is cute, easy to get in and out of and is easy to park. I drove the car for a week, primarily within a 60 mile radius of Washington. Whether driving in rural Fairfax County in Virginia or the crowded Baltimore-Washington corridor, the little Fiat was often greeted with smiles from pedestrians and commuters alike. How can you not smile back at a car smiling at you?

The 500 drives with as much personality as its shape boasts; which boosts the driver's confidence in turn. This is a car that gives the driver an immediate feeling that it's a solid, substantial and sporty car. The steering is quick, and considering the Fiat does not carry much girth, the 101 hp engine is quite adequate for most uses. I loved the five speed manual transmission. It is the smoothest shifter in a car this size. The clutch pedal helps launch the car smoothly without over revving the engine. The gas mileage is good at 31 City / 40 Hwy but not the highest for this segment.

The Fiat 500 seats four people, though the second-row seats have limited knee- and legroom for adults. I have to admit that given the car's small size, the 500 is not a car for the masses; you are going to have to hold onto your Toyota Camry or the Honda Accord if you have big kids and carry a lot of stuff. The 500 is ideally a car for running errands around town.

The 500 is available in base and 500c Abarth models. The base model comes in Pop, Sport, Lounge and Turbo trims. The 500c, which is a convertible, comes in Pop and Lounge models. All models have a four-cylinder engine, but the 500 Turbo and 500 Abarth have turbocharged engines. Prices stretch from just about $16,000 for the base model to $22,500 for the Lounge premium models.