Italian take-out: Fiat 500 is spicier than expected

Consumer Reports News: August 15, 2011 03:38 PM

With gas prices inevitably headed up over the long haul and the federal government calling for passenger cars to return an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025, many of us may find ourselves driving something smaller over the next few years. For me, I found myself driving something smaller over the last few days, and I rather enjoyed it.

Of course, hybrids, electrics, and advancing technologies like direct injection will enable some larger models to hit the ambitious fuel economy targets, but inevitably smaller, lighter cars will be part of the mix. The days of one person commuting to work in a 6,000-pound Toyota Sequoia may become a thing of the past, much like 20-foot domestic sedans following the oil embargo, rising fuel prices, and gas lines of the 1970s. For the moment, at least, it’s the Fiat 500 that draws looks, not the solo commuter in a Sequoia, as evidenced by my drive to work this morning.

The good news is if the Fiat 500 provides one glimpse of what many may be commuting in soon, the future doesn’t look so bad. After five days and several hundred miles in our 500 test car, I rather enjoyed the experience—something I must admit I didn’t entirely expect based on limited drives in the European version. Ultimately, the 500 may not measure up to other, more established market-segment players, but it does compensate with personality.

With seven inches less wheelbase than a Mini Cooper and tipping the scales at 400 fewer pounds, the 500 is a mighty small car. Yet, I found plenty of room for my six-foot, two-inch frame inside, and the wee Fiat was relatively composed, quiet, and daresay refined on the highway. And the 38-mpg it returned at highway speeds wasn’t too shabby, either, especially compared to the Ford F-150 I’m assigned to drive next.

The 500 isn’t for everybody. There will continue to be a need for larger vehicles for families, contractors, and others. Some will likely insist on driving larger vehicles just because they can, as long as they can afford the fuel. But if the 500 is one example of what to expect as manufacturers work to meet upcoming mileage requirements, the future doesn’t look so bad. It proves that small and affordable doesn’t have to be boring. And down the road, it may be that the Sequoia will be the vehicle drawing looks at stoplights.

Look for our full Fiat 500 road test online and in the magazine later this month.

First drive: 2012 Fiat 500
Just in video: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport

Jim Travers


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