By Nate Gnau
The year is 1984. Many things are happening in the world, but nothing like George Orwell’s seminal novel:
January 1, Ma Bell is officially broken up
January 24, Apple Computer, Inc releases the first Macintosh
February 11, Space Shuttle Challenger lands at Kennedy Space Center for the first time
November 22, Scarlett Johansson is born
November 25, Band Aid releases the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas”
December 3, A methyl isocyanate leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, kills more than 8,000 people outright and injures over half a million in the worst industrial disaster in history
And FIAT is leaving the United States automotive market, citing extremely poor sales and a bad reputation.
Fast forward 27 years, and FIAT has turned itself right around. It is re-entering the US market, and is in the process of purchasing Chrysler! So what is it re-entering the market with? A brand new, 1.4L, 101hp, 5-speed-manual FIAT 500. And let me tell you, it is something else.
The 500 (Cinquecento in Italian) is a little coupe dedicated to driving pleasure. It handles like what I imagine a Miata would if it were front wheel drive. The steering is so crisp, and the turning radius is ridiculously tiny. One wonders just how well this car would do on a professional go-kart track. The chassis on this car is remarkably well built, and rigid as a bar of titanium. The suspension is quite well sprung, but it will not shake the fillings out of your teeth. The brakes are also very well sorted out.
Stepping inside the 500, I noticed straight off that the switches, dials, and other appointments are very solid-feeling, and very handsomely fitted. The fit and finish of all body panels is impeccable, and the whole car just feels like it was put together with a level of passion that is just unheard of for a worldwide car firm.
While I was in possession of the car, my sales rep, Ted Knight told me of a local business that cared for, restored, and sold rare classic cars. So we stopped in at the business, Hyman Ltd., for a little tour. While we were there, we spotted a 1971 FIAT 595 Abarth Esse Esse, so we had a photo shoot with the two cars to compare them. While the new 500 is not a large car by any means, it was apparent that the 500 had grown with age. Whereas I could fit quite comfortably in the new 500, I felt like a baby in its’ mother’s womb in the 595. It is apparent that FIAT did not intend for the original 500 to be driven by tall, fat men. Though I’m sure that little rocket would have been so much fun around the track…
The new 500’s price starts around $15,500 for the “Pop” trim level, though the “Sport”-level car that I drove starts at $17,500, with the “Lounge” version (a highly optioned, luxury model) topping the line-up at $19,500 not including options, or tax, title, license, and delivery fees. Each model gets an EPA-rated MPG of 30 city/38 highway.
The new 500 is a car that just seems like it would be man’s best friend if it could act autonomously. I love this little car very much, and plan to own one by next Spring. You might want to do the same.
I have one last thing to say about 500’s re-entry into the US market: (cue the “welcome back, kotter” theme) “Yeah, we teased him a lot, but we got him on the spot! welcome back! Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back!”
Special thanks to Ted Knight and the rest of the crew at Fiat of Creve Coeur, in St. Louis, MO
Author’s note: If you think this 500 is cool, wait until next year. A convertible version and the much-anticipated Abarth editions are due to be released in the spring of 2012!
Check out the images of the 500 below in the gallery. Click and image to enlarge.