Car: Driving the 2012 Fiat 500 Prima, Solid but a Little Souless


Think deja vu revisited…

It didn’t take a genius to predict that $4 gas was coming again. Hey, I did it. Nor did it require a long memory to think back to 2008 when car dealers were drowning in unsellable, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. The only thing that’s spared us high dollar gas since was a worldwide recession.

And now here we go again…

Americans standing in line to buy Honda Civics and Toyota Prius cars. Hybrids almost impossible to find – thanks to consumer demand and the earthquake in Japan.

Fortunately affordable options like the new Fiat 500 exist.

I took delivery of one last month and with 1,500 miles on it, here’s what I can report.

It’s way more spacious than you might think. That while being 7 inches shorter than a BMW Mini. I’m 6’3” and even with the headroom-robbing sunroof, I’ve got plenty of head space – leg room, too.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much rear seat room there is in the Fiat too – more than in a Mini. And it’s got nearly double the Mini’s trunk space.

Build quality appears first rate. Nothing for Tony to fix here. Not yet anyway.

Everything works and seems solidly made. Including an excellent Bose sound and satelite radio system with very cool, integrated bluetooth steering wheel controls for your cell phone.

And so far, so good on the gas mileage.

The 500 has ranged from 34 to 42 miles-per-gallon in a mix of city and highway. Coming off a 40 mpg-plus Prius, I drive the 500 very carefully. And unlike the Mini, the Fiat runs on regular.

At this point in time, the diminuative 500 is an attention getter.

Usually from younger, hipper types drawn to its shrunken, funky look. And from oldsters and car buffs, startled to see a new Fiat actually roaming the streets after a 28 year hiatus.

Most will find the Fiat 500 more than peppy enough. But if your looking for rapid acceleration, you’d best look elsewhere.

It’s still very fun to drive because the 500 handles like a sportscar. And it delivers a far more liveable ride than a Mini. And you can park it anywhere.

All that said, Car & Driver’s June issue picked the Mini over the 500 in a comparison test. But it was a test weighted on perfromance, with the Mini being faster and thus sportier because of its larger engine. But do real world car buyers care that the Mini tops out at 120 miles per hour versus the 500’s 110?

Of the categories C&D measured, the 500 beat the Mini in just three; rear-seat space, trunk space & price.

But think about it. When it comes to Micro Cars, those three are huge!

Way more seating and storage space for way less money.

More than $5,000 less when you take off the 500’s sunroof that the Mini did not come equipped with for the test.

Here’s what I don’t like about the new Fiat 500.

Italian styling aside, even in my limited edition Prima model, many of the interior plastics seem cheap and souless. They rob the 500 – to my thinking – of its Italian look and heritage. The Fiat 500 is built at the same factory that made PT Cruisers and there’s something about the 500’s interior materials that make it feel a little like a mini PT Cruiser. Rather than a true Italian car.

I’m betting the European models will employ higher grade interior materials once Fiat exports the improvements on our North American 500 to the European 500 sometime in the next year.

You know, Italian cars should feel like Italian cars.

In summary, the new Fiat 500 offers Italian style, very good-but-not-great gas mileage, a comfortable, sporty ride and handling with a quite reasonable amount of room at a quite reasonable price.

The only thing missing for purists and lovers of all things Italian is it’s a little shy on the con brio.
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10 Responses to Car: Driving the 2012 Fiat 500 Prima, Solid but a Little Souless

  1. Mark X says:

    No mas …
    … for the love of God, stop, just stop!

    Obsessions are very unhealthy. Please seek professional help.

    Hearne, NO. ONE. CARES.

    (save for 14 – 15 year old girls)

  2. bschloz says:

    Way more seating and storage space
    Pull into Whole Foods market like you own the place….load that sucker up with grass fed beef and gently raised chickens–
    “Way more seating”……is like claiming to be the fastest man in Johnson County.
    Man you would really be easy to find in one those old random Pitch ads ….”Me i was driving the Blue Sentra and parked next to you @ The Cupcakery on the Plaza….You were driving that Awesome and Amazing New Fiat 500 -if you felt the connection also– please respond to 45656………

    Just messin with ya Hearne…congrats on yo new wheels and good post.

  3. Ptolemy says:

    I tried to get through that – really did.

    But had to get up from the toilet.

    You want to make this an interesting article, do a head-on crash test between an F-150 and your Fiat – see who survivews that battle.

  4. Hearne Christopher says:

    Huh. That must be why every national auto publication, major newspaper and others, including the new Car & Driver magazine are writing about this car.

  5. Hearne Christopher says:

    Why didn’t I think of that?

  6. typo king says:

    ONLY 34MPG?
    only 34-42 mpg? that seems very very low for a teeny tiny car, I know someone who bought a “smart car”, and it gets about the same…. heck back in 1983 my god ole Chevy Monza 6 cylinder used to get 28 mph, and it was very very peppy……

    I wonder why these small cars dont get better MPG…
    and i will only be impress when these itty bitty cars can get 70 mpg….
    I dont understand why they dont now….

    How can an ELECTRIC(i know hybrid) Prius only get 40 mpg….

  7. Hearne Christopher says:

    I’m with you on this. Seems like a car this small with this size engine ought to be pushing mid-30s to 40 City and mid 40s or better on the highway.

    But I will note that this is a far bigger car than a smart. Far bigger. Long as your backseat buddies are less than 5’8″ you can scootch up the front seats and do a foursome.

  8. chuck says:

    bschloz is killin me….heh, heh…
    Funny stuff.

  9. Rogger says:

    Mini vs. Italiano Fiat (limited editition)
    You just can’t compare these vehicles, Hearnie.

    The Mini is a thoroughbred performance automobile with a rich racing heritage and graced with cutting edge technology and engineering. It sports exotic components and premium metals throughout. It’s backed all the way by a factory and dealer network with one mission: performance and customer satisfaction. Hence, great resale value and a massive fan base!

    Attempting to assign any of the above qualities to an underpowered, underperforming, Dodge/AMC/Fiat is ludicrous. They gave it a motor designed for a riding lawnmower, handling of a ’71 Vega, enough passenger space for double amputees, and as we’ve read from your earlier reports….the shakiest, know-nothing, dealer and factory support in the Free World.

    Have they broken ground for the “Studio” yet?

  10. Hearne Christopher says:

    Good question. I’ll check.

    You might be a little generous on your assessment of the Mini. The base Cooper is hardly a “sports exotic.” Some, not all of the materials appear to be of higher quality but to build the same options of a 500 Sport into a base Cooper costs more than $5,000 more money.

    That’s a 25 percent premium.

    And no way is the base Cooper a performance car. Can we agree on that?

    When the Cooper first appeared on the scene here – the New Cooper – it was also on a shoestring.

    They were buried/stuck in the basement of Baron BMW in a show room the size of my brain. Pretty small, huh? Let’s look at where the Fiat Studios stand in 8 years.

    Fiat at least is requiring dealers to build a free standing studio before they are allowed to sell 500s.

    Here are a few other attributes widely accepted about the Mini:

    The speedo in the middle is considered a joke. As are the plethora of toggles. The reliability has been middling at best – poor by some measure. Even the stock suspension is criticized by most car magazines as being too harsh. And they almost all say not to order the sport suspension.

    It takes premium gas, has half the trunk room of the Fiat and a couple inches less rear legroom.

    When you are talking about cars this small, size matters.

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