First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 videos first drives fiat
2012 Fiat 500. Click image to enlarge

The Fiat 500 is all about personalization. Customers can select from 14 exterior colours (two of them at extra cost), and 11 unique seat colour and material combinations. Some of the colours have a distinctively “retro” appearance; others are very modern. Whatever the choice, the Fiat 500 is very much a style statement; an aesthetic alternative to subcompacts like the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic. Perhaps the closest vehicle in conception would be the Mini Cooper — itself a modern version of a classic vehicle — although the upcoming Toyota iQ should also be a contender.

On the road the Fiat 500 is nothing if not nimble. The high-revving engine is peppy and the steering is quick, although the engine can be noisy under hard acceleration. There’s not much torque from standstill or when climbing hills, so if you want a spirited response from the accelerator, you’ll need to keep the engine speed up. The manual transmission is precise and the clutch is light, and the six-speed automatic intelligently holds gears in corners and going down hills. The engine hovers at around 3,000 rpm on the highway, where the 500′s tall body and narrow track can produce a rather lively ride. Despite the high-revving engine, the car is quiet inside at legal speeds.

First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 videos first drives fiat
2012 Fiat 500. Click image to enlarge

The Fiat 500 is very much at home in an urban environment. Its subcompact dimensions get you into small spaces and around obstacles that would obstruct other vehicles. Parking lot manoeuvres are a breeze, and fuel consumption is very low, making the car perfect for zipping around town, knocking off errands and commuting to work. On the weekend, you can make a fashion statement at your local bistro.

Inside, the design is very appealing, looking both retro and modern at the same time. The front seats are comfortable and supportive (wider than the European models for North American posteriors, apparently), although you sit rather high in the car. Headroom is therefore limited for front seat passengers (even with seat height adjustment) and accommodations are challenging for adult rear-seat passengers. Foot room for the front-seat passenger is also limited, and space for odds-and-ends is at a premium. It’s not necessarily confined in there, but if the 500 was a sweater, it would be form-fitting.

The dashboard and instruments are more expensively rendered than you would expect in a car at this price point. The combination speedometer/tachometer is visually appealing and effective. Really, the entire interior design is clever and cheerful. It certainly isn’t utilitarian.

First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 videos first drives fiat
First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 videos first drives fiat
First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 videos first drives fiat
2012 Fiat 500. Click image to enlarge

The rear seat folds down, handily opening up a large area for cargo that would be accessed through the rear hatch. The front seats conveniently fold and slide forward to gain entry to the rear. Fiat says there’s more cargo space in the 500 than in the Mini Cooper, and while you may think that’s putting a spin on its cargo capacity, the fact is, you can fit a surprising amount of gear into a Mini Cooper.

I’m not sure why the passenger grab handle is absent in the Pop version, and I think the driver’s aspheric mirror is a helpful tool that should be standard on both sides of the car. The availability of leather seating surfaces is an unexpected pleasure in a vehicle of this class.

Although the 2012 Fiat 500 is not particularly powerful, its engine is free-revving and entertaining within its limits. Steering is quick and the ride is smooth, and in case you’re worried, the 500 can take a 60 km/h front offset collision without interfering with the operation of the doors, so it’s a tough little car for its size.

The Fiat 500 seems finely crafted and feels solid on the road. Its design is eye-catching and owners will stand out from the crowd in this little car as its retro design speaks to perhaps a more fun and whimsical era, and therefore a less conventional owner. Fiat doesn’t expect to sell huge numbers of these vehicles, however, estimating 100,000 for “The Americas” with about 50,000 for the U.S. and maybe 5,000 for Canada. Even that is perhaps an optimistic number, as it is more than the number of Mini Coopers annually sold here. But the Fiat 500 costs several thousand dollars less than a Mini Cooper, so we’ll see.

Look also for a convertible version later this year, and a sporty Abarth edition in 2012. Fiat 500s are arriving in showrooms in February. For a dealer near you, check FiatCanada.com.

Bottom line? Welcome back Fiat. If your other cars are as cool and fun as the Fiat 500, you should do just fine in Canada.

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