Image: Fiat 500
The tiny Fiat 500 is looking to charm American drivers with Euro-styling that sets the car apart from bland Asian products.
By contributor
updated 9/20/2011 12:24:03 PM ET 2011-09-20T16:24:03

As the globe shrinks, carmakers such as Fiat that once were happy to dominate their home markets without competing abroad are being forced to face wider competition.

Manufacturers like Fiat, Renault and Peugeot -- which left the U.S. market decades ago after customers fled these unreliable brands for Japanese and German carmakers -- are finding those same competitors in their home markets. That is forcing them to improve their cars to the standards set by Honda, Toyota and increasingly, Hyundai.

Driving these Italian and French cars in Europe in recent years has been a revelation: They seem to be put together every bit as well as cars made anywhere else, and they often boast chic Euro-styling that sets them apart from bland Asian products.

The Fiat 500 is a case in point. The original 500, or “Cinquecento” in Italian, was the fondly remembered Italian equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle or Austin Mini, so Fiat decided to follow VW and Mini’s lead by introducing a new version that evokes the beloved classic.

Unlike VW, which stretched the New Beetle to preposterous proportions, Fiat stuck closer to the original car’s size, producing a model that is even smaller than the Mini.

The Mexican-built U.S. version of the 500 feels as solidly assembled as the European models that have been sold on the Continent for several years, with none of the embarrassing manufacturing flaws that drove American customers away from cars like the Fiat Bravo and Strada, despite their appealing handling characteristics.

The version of the 500 I tested -- a convertible -- not only seemed solid, it also successfully repelled the drenching remnants of a tropical storm that flooded the East Coast recently. The 500’s electronics didn’t flicker during this virtual submersion test, and the car plowed happily along through the torrent without a hiccup.

With the reliability problems in its cars fixed, Fiat realized that the key to regaining customers was to focus on the company’s longstanding fun-to-drive aspect.

When the 500 debuted at the Frankfurt motor show four years ago, Fiat played up the car’s toy-like aspect with a display featuring the cars traveling on a track like an amusement park ride, with a giant-sized version of the 500’s body shell serving as the fun house through which the cars traveled.

The stunt underscores the 500’s appeal as a virtual thrill ride, but while the exterior style supports that notion, the chassis isn’t cashing the checks the sunny exterior is writing. Steering and handling fail to live up to the lively, playful promise of the 500’s diminutive dimensions.

Instead of the grasping-the-front-axles directness one expects from such a go-cartlike conveyance, the 500 driver is frustrated by lifeless power steering that feels directly lifted from an Oldsmobile Cutlass circa 1971.

For urbanites who suffer cars as a necessary evil and revel in the Fiat fashion statement, this dull steering will make no difference, as the car goes where it is pointed and the flyaway steering makes one-finger parking a breeze.

But those who are attracted by the expectation of fuel-sipping fun will be disappointed. Attempting to distract from that disappointment by enjoying the Bose sound system will only compound the problem as the radio is abominably hard to use due to the lack of rotary knobs for volume or tuning.

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Inside the 500 there is room for four, with just enough space behind the back seat for a row of grocery bags. It feels very much like the original Honda Civic in scale, but with a more claustrophobic cabin due to the thick bracing and small windows demanded by modern safety tests.

We don’t yet know to what degree that modern reinforcement, with the aid of seven airbags, has bolstered crash test scores because results for the U.S. model aren’t yet available. But in Europe the 500 was the first subcompact to earn a five-star rating, which bodes well for results from U.S. testing agencies.

A six-footer can genuinely fit in the rear seat behind a front-seater of the same size, though it means splayed knees, head restraint pressing against the neck and head grazing the ceiling, so the ride should be a short one.

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The 500’s 29 mpg in combined city and highway driving is acceptable but not exemplary for a car with only 101 horsepower and six speeds in the transmission (for perspective, that means the Buick Regal eAssist has better steering feel and better fuel economy).

The 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine has a modestly thrashy character that is reminiscent of a sewing machine in the manner of Japanese engines of the 1970s. It’s in no way obtrusive, but you are aware that it is toiling underhood. When stopped at a light with the automatic transmission in drive, however, the engine does vibrate at idle.

Such details won’t matter to those for whom the 500’s aesthetic is irresistible. It has the right look, it is easy to park, comfortable to drive and turns heads everywhere it goes. If, at $25,000 (as tested, as a fully loaded convertible), it’s a touch expensive for an economy car, that may deter bargain hunters, but the fashionable set is accustomed to paying for style.

And if, at 29 mpg, the 500 isn’t as efficient as accords its size, well again, many consumers are prepared to suffer for art, and 29 mpg isn’t painfully bad, it just isn’t boast-worthily good for a cramped four-seater.

The car has been cast in some reports as a slow seller, but with only 100 dealers concentrated on the coasts, Fiat is selling 3,000 a month these days, which is solid for a niche car from a brand that has been absent for three decades.

Look for it to sustain that sales strength for a while because this new 500 successfully marries Italian flair and style with modern global requirements for reliability and safety, so it’s sure to succeed with urban trendsetters.

But for car enthusiasts, Fiat may still have some tweaking to do to dial up the fun factor.

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Explainer: Ten leaps forward in car technology

  • Image: Three-point seatbelt
    Volvo’s Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959.

    English physicist, mathematician and astronomer Sir Isaac Newton once famously wrote — with perhaps a touch of false modesty — that “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    Thus has the car industry incrementally improved from its primordial horseless carriage beginnings to the magic carpet ride of today’s almost incomprehensibly complex machines with their raft of safety, environmental and convenience devices adding to the basic transportation function.

    Here are 10 of the car industry’s most important technological changes.

  • 1886 Benz

    Daimler AG

    It all began with Karl Benz and his construction of a self-propelled, three-wheel vehicle powered by a single-cylinder 0.75-horsepower engine using a leather belt and two bicycle chains to transmit power to the rear wheels.

    However modest this beginning, with its exposed engine parts and whirling bits menacing anyone who examines it too closely, the 1886 Benz launched the industry and was the foundation of today esteemed Mercedes-Benz brand. (Maybe the leather upholstery was an early clue to the company’s luxury intent?)

  • 1912 Cadillac with electric starter


    The electric starter — invented by Charles Kettering at his Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco) in 1911 — became standard equipment on Cadillacs in 1912, paving the way for all cars to feature electric starters. This accelerated the industry standardization of gasoline internal combustion engines over steam and electric designs. It also put more women behind the wheels of cars because prior to the electric starter they tended to avoid using difficult-to-start, hand-cranked cars.

  • 1914 Ford Model T

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Introduced in 1908, the Model T was just another low-end car from the multitude of regional manufacturers in this country. In 1914 Ford separated itself from its rivals and became (for a while) the world’s largest industrial concern as the result of the Model T’s assembly switching from small teams of craftsmen assembling each car to a moving assembly line of unskilled workers each contributing the same small bit to every car on the line. Construction time to build each car plunged from 12 hours and 30 minutes to 93 minutes, and the car’s price fell from $690 to $360, while annual sales mushroomed almost ten-fold and Ford doubled workers’ salaries to $5 a day.

  • 1930 Motorola car radio


    Next time a boom car rattles your windows at a stop light, think back to the days before Paul and Joseph Galvin developed the first commercially available car radio in 1930.

    The Motorola car radio overcame a host of challenges, including electrical interference, finding space in the car for the bulky radio components and making the radio durable enough to survive the pounding of primitive roads. The popular 5T71 radio debuted at the Radio Manufacturers Association convention in Atlantic City, N.J., following a demonstration drive from Chicago to prove its durability.

  • 1940 Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic transmission


    Today few new cars are sold in the U.S. with a manual transmission and a dwindling portion of the population even knows how to use one. We can credit this dismal state of affairs to the invention of the automatic transmission and its debut in the 1940 Oldsmobile.

    The original Hydra-Matic automatic transmission offered benefits in terms of efficiency that surpassed subsequent designs, but that approach was abandoned in pursuit of smoother gear changes, which were more important to drivers. The company touted the ability to navigate stop and go traffic and to park without stalling the engine as the automatic’s primary benefits, and those features continue to drive the technology’s appeal today.

  • 1946 Michelin radial tire


    Until Michelin developed the radial, tire design had evolved little from the dawn of the car industry. The radial moniker refers to the direction of the reinforcing belts, which are turned perpendicular rather than running parallel to the direction of travel as in bias-ply designs.

    The benefits include a more stable footprint, reduced fuel consumption, longer tread life and better handling. The near-absence of any kind of maintenance or attention required led the government to mandate tire pressure monitors in cars because drivers had long since stopped checking the condition of their tires.

  • 1959 Volvo three-point seat belt


    Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959. The belt appeared in the automaker’s cars that year, and within a decade the belts were mandatory equipment in all cars sold in the United States.

    Bohlin’s background was in aviation, where he developed ejection seats, so he understood the necessity of securing the torso and not just the pelvis as the lap belt had done. The elegant simplicity of his solution is confirmed by the inability of newer seat belt designs to displace the three-point seatbelt 50 years on.

  • 1972 General Motors air bag


    While air bags didn’t become commonplace in cars until the 1990s, GM conducted a large field test of 1,000 1972 Chevrolet Impalas equipped with experimental air bags. Between 1974 and 1976, the company offered the world’s first production air bags in its cars, with the first appearing in a 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado. Though the company was prepared to build 100,000 air bag-equipped cars a year, only 10,321 were sold over three years despite a reasonable price of between $180 and $300 for the option.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirmed the robust construction of the early system by testing two of the old cars in the 1990s. Neither car ran and even the radio and clock didn’t work in one, but the air bags still deployed perfectly in the institute’s crash lab.

    “What’s important to remember at this point is that the air bags GM put into those early cars worked fine,” wrote IIHS president Brian O’Neill in a 1993 letter to the New York Times.

  • 1995 BMW and Mercedes-Benz electronic stability control

    Mercedes-Benz USA

    These premium carmakers battled to be the first to introduce an electronic stability control system that automatically stabilizes a car in the event of a slide. Though these expensive V-12 models were the first to feature stability control, they quickly verified the technology’s value with significant reductions in crashes. Subsequent studies showed that stability control-equipped cars are about one-third less likely to suffer a fatal crash, a result that encouraged the U.S. government to mandate stability control for all cars starting in model year 2012. The real safety advantage of stability control is that in contrast to seat belts and air bags, which mitigate the damage that occurs in a crash, stability control prevents many crashes from happening in the first place.

  • 1996 OnStar telematics

    GM  /  Wieck

    In our increasingly connected wireless world, the notion that the car should connect to a network over which it can share information may seem like an obvious development. But it was less obvious in 1996 when GM’s OnStar division was launched, using analog cellular telephone technology to send information to drivers and to automatically report crashes.

    Today other carmakers have their own telematics services and each month OnStar is now responding to 2,300 crashes, 10,000 requests for emergency assistance and nearly 30,000 requests for roadside assistance.

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