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

Once behind the wheel, the 500 feels a lot more grown up than it looks. The leather seats in the Lounge are supremely comfortable, forward visibility is panoramic, and the body-coloured plastic dash panel adds just the right amount of retro-zest without overdoing it (I’m talking to you, Mini).

Nice touches include one-touch lane-change signally, a convex section on the driver’s side mirror for blind spot checking, and a rear wiper that comes on automatically when putting the car into reverse when the front wipers are on.

Controls on the centre console are large and logical, but unlike in the Mini, the steering column only tilts. The main gauge is a concentric circle affair – the outer ring is the speedo, within that the tachometer and then a central digital readout for fuel, coolant temp, time, ambient temp, etc. Overall, a nicely done interior that’s as cheery and cheeky as the car’s exterior.

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

Fiat made a number of changes to the European 500 before bringing it here. Along with the six-speed auto and 1.4-litre engine, we get a bigger gas tank, upgraded HVAC and audio, recalibrated suspension, a proper glovebox, cup holder, central armrest and widened seats.

I would suggest another mod. While the driver’s seat is height-adjustable, both front seats should be lowered by a few centimetres to accommodate those taller than six feet. When the car is fitted with the optional $500 powered sunroof, headroom is scarce. My basketball dunking/guitar playing friend Emile, who is six-foot-four, had to recline the seat into full cruise mode, and still his ‘do tickled the headliner.

Back seat room is on par with the Mini, which is to say kids and smallish adults. With the back seats folded, Emile and I chucked a couple of amps and guitars in the hatch with room to spare.

Dynamically, the 2012 Fiat 500 does not have the cat-like reflexes nor the roadholding of the Mini, but it doesn’t suffer for it. While still a nimble and sharp handler, it’s a more relaxed trip down memory lane. Yes, there is a Sport button on the dash that adds a bit more heft to the electric steering and has the tranny shifting a little more smartly and holding onto gears longer, but the 500 is a long way from a hot hatch. Wait for the Abarth version with an expected 130 hp.

The ride is remarkably compliant for such a small car, and while it gets a bit pitchy over some surfaces, there are no untoward crashes or thumps. What really surprised me was its highway demeanour. This thing was a champ on southern Ontario’s Highway 401, cruising solidly at 120 km/h with a relaxed 2,900 rpm showing on the tachometer.

Standard safety kit includes advanced multi-stage front airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, driver’s side knee airbag, seat-mounted side airbags and front seat active head restraints.

The 2012 Fiat 500 is available at 67 select Chrysler dealerships across Canada (mostly urban) and initial interest is strong, according to my local store. But the big question remains: does this diminutive Italian transplant have the legs to find success in North America?

It certainly found love wherever I took it.

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