2012 Fiat 500 Lounge
2012 Fiat 500 Lounge with Ian Deakin (as Edna Turnblad), Stephanie Pitsiladis (as Tracy Turnblad), Marianne McCord (Velma Von Tussle) and Nichola Lawrence (Motormouth Maybelle) of the St. Jacobs (Ontario) Country Playhouse’s production of Hairspray. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

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2012 Fiat 500

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, never have so many expected so much from a car so puny.

With Fiat now running the Chrysler show, the resurrected Fiat 500, which enjoyed star-status in Europe following its 2007 launch, comes here with a pretty daunting mandate: reintroduce North America to this Italian brand, win our hearts, and oh yeah, as Chrysler’s only small car, repeat the fairytale success of the reborn Mini.

It’s been almost 30 years since Fiat left these shores with its tail between its legs. But that is ancient history, and likely of no concern for the intended audience of this reborn icon – the young, style-conscious, green thinking, budget-minded urban hipster.

And with a starting price of $15,995 for the entry-level Pop, our Mexican-built Cinquecento is certainly not playing the “premium” card. The $18,500 Sport model will likely be the volume seller, getting standard A/C, Bluetooth, 16-inch alloys and a sport-tuned suspension. The Lounge, starting at $19,500, features leather, a fixed panoramic roof, extra chrome, Bose audio and other goodies. In contrast, BMW’s Mini starts at $23,600 for the Cooper Classic.

2012 Fiat 500 Lounge
2012 Fiat 500 Lounge. Click image to enlarge

So where better to get a read on this redux Italian than a place awash in cool, artsy, youthful, and, ahem, financially astute folks? Yes, we’re speaking of actors, and specifically the cast of the musical Hairspray, currently playing at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse in St. Jacobs, Ontario.

Like the show, my red Lounge 500 was a hit. And why not? It’s as cute as a St. Bernard puppy… and not a whole lot bigger. Riding on 15-inch alloys, the four-seat 500 is 178 mm (7 in) shorter and 56 mm (2.2 in) narrower than the Mini, although it’s roofline is 112 mm (4.4 in) higher.

Stephanie Pitsiladis, who stars as 60s teen Tracy Turnblad in the show, fell for the Fiat 500 as hard as she falls for the dreamy Link Larkin. “I want one”, she declared, but being a relative youngster, she admittedly knows little of the Fiat brand, or of the original 500 that was in production from 1957 to 1975.

2012 Fiat 500 Lounge
2012 Fiat 500 Lounge. Click image to enlarge

So while this delightful interpretation of the original Cinquecento might not have much nostalgic pull here in North America, I am happy to report it’s a great little car in its own right.

Power comes from a 101-hp 1.4-litre four featuring Fiat’s clever Multiair throttleless intake system that gives this little tyke fuel economy numbers of 6.7 L/100 km city and 5.1 L/100 km highway with the five-speed manual transmission, and 7.4/5.7 when fitted with the $1,300 6-speed automatic, which was developed specifically for the North American market. Fiat expects 70 per cent of Canadian buyers will opt for the auto, and this tester had it. After a week of mostly highway driving I saw 6.8 L/100 km.

The Multiair with the automatic is a good combination. Sure, you won’t win any drag races in a 500, but the engine is eager, kicks out a perky snarl and the transmission swaps cogs smoothly. Knock the shift lever to the left, and you can select the gears sequentially by tapping forward for downshifts and back for upshifts.

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