A Fiat 500 fit for the times

American drivers are now footing the big fuel bills that have come due after years of super-sizing finally collided with the geopolitics of oil. Car companies are responding to this change in priorities with new models that include more efficient gasoline designs as well as more pricey alternative fuel vehicles such as electric cars. For a lot of consumers, however, the most affordable answer comes down to abandoning super-sizing in favor of right-sizing.

Smaller sizes have long been the norm across the pond due to Europe’s historically higher fuel prices, motivating carmakers to come up with stylish solutions even at the pint-size end of the right-size spectrum. With the oil market as skittish as ever, the timing is certainly right for Fiat to return to America with its new 500 model, or “cinquecento” as it known in its homeland.

Born into — and a big part of — Italy’s post-war economic reconstruction, the Fiat 500 was to a whole generation of paesani what bread-and-butter Fords and Chevys were to many American wage earners. The first 500 was truly tiny by today’s standards, as seen in yours truly’s pose next to one (courtesy of the Fiat stand at this year’s Detroit auto show). The original car took its name from its rear-mounted 500 cc (i.e., half Liter) engine and measured just under ten feet long bumper-to-bumper.

After a three-decade hiatus, Fiat introduced a 21st century 500 in 2007 and an Americanized version of that model has just landed on our shores. Now over 11.5 feet long (every foot makes a difference in this size range) and propelled by a sophisticated 1.4 Liter, 101 horsepower engine, the Fiat 500 starts at around $16,000. The car is available in a wide range of colorful and stylish trims — the 500 won the European Car of the Year award in 2008 — including the cushier Lounge model that we rate here. Although loadable with further options, a Fiat 500 Lounge with an automatic transmission lists for $20,000 (counting destination fee) and sports an EPA sticker of 27 city, 34 highway mpg. That earns it an eRating of 125.

How does it compare to some other Euro-styled small cars? The new Mini Cooper Hardtop earns an eRating of 127. Priced at $21,350, it noses out the Fiat as a result of the efficiency boost that BMW’s engineers gave the Mini for model year 2011. (The 2010 Mini Cooper was eRated at 120, as seen in the earlier post comparing it to the Mini E electric; Fiat promises an electric 500 within two years).

Among the most diminutive cars available in the states is the Smart fortwo. Seriously city-centric, with a speed topping out just over 60 mph, the fortwo sips so little gas that it easily earns an eRating of 147. The price, too, is hard to beat, with a basic Smart fortwo listing for only $12,635.

The Fiat 500, however, is built for autostrada speeds, and I’ve already been dusted by one while cruising the local freeways in my daily driver. With an eRating that implies 25% less pollution per mile than average, the 500 clearly qualifies as a quick and stylish way to drive green.




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  • Deborah Medlar

    My husband is in LOVE with this car. Really wants to buy one. With all of the SUVs and vans around our Seattle freeways I am absolutely afraid of being crunched in a fiat. What are the safety statistics in the US with these small cars?

    I wouldn’t feel as vulnerable in Italy, but here, with the majority of giant cars, I would be.

    What do you know?

    • The Fiat 500 is certainly at the small end of the big-small spectrum on U.S. roads. Nevertheless, the simple laws of physics that some like to cite are too simplistic given the many factors that make one car safer than another. Statistically speaking, many of the least safe vehicles on the road are large pickup trucks and SUVs, which are prone to rollover, often have poor built-in safety features and are too often driven with little regard to safety. They are neither particularly safe for their occupants and they impose hazards to other road users.

      Thorough safety statistics based on real-world crash data are surprisingly hard to come by. What the best studies show is that it’s very difficult to generalize because crash rates and the resulting injury patterns are highly variable. Nevertheless, the worst overall safety records are associated with larger vehicles such as fullsize pickups, and it appears to be a function of both their design (not that safe) and their usage pattern (often on rural roads, which are less safe than either freeways or city streets). Some small vehicles have excellent safety records. The safest mass-market vehicles tend to be family sedans and minvans, which may be function of both how they’re driven as well as the extra safety features that are popular in such models.

      So, what’s the bottom line? A well-designed small car can be a safe choice. The Fiat 500 comes with a full complement of front, side and head airbags as well as additional advanced airbags for extra protection, and of course passes all of the requisite safety requirements. As of this writing, full U.S. crash test numbers weren’t yet published for the car, but reports on European crash tests give the Fiat 500 car a top, 5-star rating for protecting adult occupants. Some buyers might want to wait for the results from the additional crash tests that measure safety performance above and beyond the minimum requirements.



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