The Fiat 500; Lots in A Small Package

by Don Elliott on December 7, 2011

Have you checked out the new 2012 Fiat 500 subcompact yet? Fiat has only opened 120 stores in 37 states, so there is a good chance there is not yet a dealership near you. The launch of the new car is running behind schedule, with only 28,620 of the targeted 50,000 units sold by the end of October.

The subcompact segment has been the fastest growing group during this past year. Shopping for a subcompact car can be an interesting experience, particularly if you live in an urban area where a small car can be a practical asset. The Mini Cooper made a big splash when it was introduced 6 years ago. More recently, the Mercedes smart turned heads as the smallest car on the road today. Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, and the Mazda 2 are other entries competing in this small car market.

I found the Fiat store in my town at the shopping mall. The gleaming store featured only 3 cars; a 500 Sport, a 500 Lounge, and a 500C convertible (ish!) car. Admittedly, this was only a showroom. As to be expected, Fiat stores are closely aligned with Chrysler dealerships. This business relationship is the result of Fiat’s buyout of the bankrupt Chrysler just two years ago. Fiat’s showroom strategy requires that dealerships all have stand alone facilities including designated service shops. The presentation of this showroom attached to the shopping mall presents an interesting alternative to the intimidating car dealership facility.

There is no reason to expect extraordinary performance from a 1.4 liter 101 horsepower 4-cylinder power plant. However, fuel efficiency is almost a requirement. The 5-speed turns a respectable 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway. However, the 6-speed automatic yields on 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway, one of the lowest in the segment.

I liked the Fiat Sport model best for styling, interior appointments, and price. The base model Pop is advertised as available at $15,500 plus $500 shipping. For an extra $2,000, the Sport gives the car a more appealing style. I cannot justify an additional $4,000 for the power convertible top, which is really just an oversized folding canvas sunroof. The canvas stacks up behind the backseat making the rear view mirror unusable when the top is down.

Fiat offers an array of Scion-like styling options typical of its targeted competitor, the more expensive Mini Cooper. With only one car, Fiat has done a remarkable job making the introduction look like a whole lot more. A few Fiat cars have made it to wholesale auto auctions where they have held up to pricing pressure. As a new nameplate, they are on the right track with a competitive offering in a segment without much bandwidth. For an Italian car built by Chrysler in the Mexico manufacturing plant that brought us the K-car, Neon, and PT cruiser; marketing will be critical.

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