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2012 Fiat 500, Abarth and Cabrio
In this market, can a small car really be mighty?

By Malcolm Gunn

Colour-coordinated dash panel makes the interior feel wider than it really is. The Fiat 500 is a small car with a small price tag. It also makes an interesting style statement.How could it miss, really? A cute, fun and economical car with Italian heritage at a base sticker price of just $16,000?

Well, it hasn't missed, exactly, but it has been a bumpy ride for Chrysler's Italy-based offshoot as it attempts to carve out a decent-sized slice of a rather small niche-market pie.

Now there's a new marketing boss and two mew models to help reach an aggressive North American target of 50,000 cars a year. But is it enough? And do North American buyers get it?

Fifty-plus years ago, the Volkswagen Beetle charmed North Americans with quirky styling and a highly effective ad campaign that, like the rear-engine, air-cooled car itself, broke all the rules. Since then, lightning has yet to strike twice, although the resurrected Mini Cooper in all its iconic glory has been more than moderately successful.

On these shores, the Fiat 500's heritage is far less appreciated, but at least the car delivers on the cute-and-cool factor. Of course, a spike in gas prices would really help to light a fire under the 500's sales chart, as it would for the steadily rising number of micro-rides that, along with the Mini, includes the Smart Fortwo and Toyota's new Scion iQ.

The Fiat 500 Abarth replaces some of the cuteness with sporty bits, but the five-speed manual transmission is short a gear when pitted against the comparable (albeit much pricier) Mini Cooper.For the 2012 model year, two new versions of the Fiat 500 await your consideration. First to arrive was the 500c (Cabrio) that, depending on your viewpoint, is either a convertible or a regular 500 with a giant power-operated roof. In 15 seconds, the two-ply cloth top folds accordion-style, leaving the roof pillars and side glass in place. Sure it's quirky, but that's how it was originally done on the 1950s 500 (yes, Europeans have been driving 500s for over 50 years).

As well as leaving your coiffure in tact, Fiat claims that the fixed side pillar design is far more rigid than open-air convertible designs, aided and abetted by a taller windshield plus extra bracing along the windshield header and behind the rear seat. The top can also be fully opened and closed while the car is travelling up to 80 km/h and can be partially activated at any point for that just-right amount of fresh air.

In back, the abbreviated liftgate offers access to a trunk that is roughly half the volume of the 500 hatchback (with the rear seat in place), which is to say not very much. Rear vision is also in relatively short supply, regardless of whether the top is folded or left in place (due to the small glass back window).

The transition to convertible from hatch adds 24 kilograms to the 500's base weight (for a total of 1,100). That shouldn't adversely affect the buzzy 101-horsepower 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine's ability to deliver at least adequate acceleration, whether connected to a five-speed manual transmission or the optional six-speed automatic.

It's not a convertible in the traditional sense, but the sliding top is very much traditional in the context of the Fiat 500.More performance assistance is on the way with the mid-2012 launch of the Fiat 500 Abarth. The model is named for Karl Abarth, who successfully tuned the original 500 for racing use (Abarth was to Fiat what John Cooper was to Mini).

The Abarth arrives with a turbocharged version of the 1.4 that makes 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Also part of the package is a five-speed manual gearbox, sport-tuned suspension and exhaust, beefier brakes, special Abarth alloy wheels (in 16- or optional 17-inch sizes), distinctive nosepiece and rear spoiler, plus specific interior/exterior trim.

Pricing hasn't yet been announced for the hot-rod Abarth, but parking a new base 500c 'Pop' Cabrio in your driveway will require $19,400, including destination charges. (A base hatchback is $17,400 including destination charges). Moving up-range to the 500c 'Lounge' convertible and/or adding options will definitely inflate the price, but either version is a relative bargain when compared to the $30,800 base Mini Cooper convertible.

With all the cards now on the table, the only thing left for Fiat to do is sell you on the idea of the 500. With the new Abarth and the convertible appealing to a wider audience, the job will be easier, but keep in mind the small-car pie is still small in North America.


WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: 2012 Fiat 500

Type: Two-door, front-wheel-drive sub-compact hatchback/convertible.

Engines (hp): 1.4-litre DOHC I4 (101); 1.4-litre DOHC I4, turbocharged (160).

Transmissions: Five-speed manual; six-speed automatic (opt., except Abarth).

Market position: Sub-compacts currently occupy an equally tiny percentage of the automotive landscape. The Fiat 500, along with new entries from General Motors and Toyota, indicates this category is definitely on the rise.

Points: Styled to maintain ties with its past, but too cute for its own good?; Base 500 costs $4,000 less than Mini Copper; almost no storage space when full of passengers; Base powertrain is buzzy; Sliding convertible roof, more powerful Abarth are welcome additions; Abarth has no six-speed; Fiat brand acceptance is a major challenge; Watch sales take off if gas prices begin to climb.

Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; driver's knee airbag; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.

L/100 km (city/hwy): 6.7/5.1(MT).

Base price (incl. destination): $17,400


BY COMPARISON

Mini Cooper Classic
Base price: $23,550
Sporty looks and slot-car handling, but is pricey for its size.

Chevrolet Spark
Base price: $15,000 (est.)
Chunky 2013 four-door hatch offers a roomy interior and a low price.

Scion iQ
Base price: $18,300
Minimalist practical model is ideal for getting around in crowded cities.

Malcolm Gunn is an automotive writer based in Moncton, NB, and a regular contributor to CarTest!

Posted March 17, 2012. © CarTest.ca TM




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