G. Chambers Williams III: Fiat 500 more than just a cute little car - San Antonio Express-News
Published Wednesday, 19 October, 2011 by Nathan Spencer.
The Italian automaker Fiat has returned to the U.S. market after a 27-year absence, with a minicar that's just about the cutest thing on four wheels.
It's the four-passenger Fiat 500, which has a relatively affordable starting price of $15,500 (plus $500 freight).
Powered by a 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the North American version of the 500 is now available at about 130 dealerships nationwide, including Ancira Fiat on Interstate 10 West in San Antonio.
But these cars aren't imported from Europe. Chrysler Group LLC., which has become a subsidiary of Fiat, assembles them at its factory in Toluca, Mexico, with engines built by Chrysler in Michigan.
It's not like any other American car, though. Nearest in size on the U.S. market are the smaller, two-seat Smart, from Mercedes-Benz, and the four-passenger Mini Cooper, a BMW product. Both are from Europe.
The Fiat is in the ?A? class of vehicles, which is smaller than the ?B? class, which includes vehicles in the United States such as the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic and Toyota Yaris.
Fiat began selling the newest version of the 500 in Europe in 2007, where it is already quite popular. It's similar in appearance to the original 500, which was introduced in 1957 and came with a two-cylinder engine. It was made until 1975 but was not sold in the United States (although other Fiat models were).
Chrysler sells the new 500 through a separate network of Fiat ?studios,? operated by select, existing Chrysler dealers. The car has become a fashion statement among trendy young Europeans, and Fiat hopes it will catch on with the 20-something crowd here, as well.
Dealers carefully picked to sell the Fiat models will offer them in a separate setting, with a separate service area. The idea is to create a boutique-style sales environment, rather than selling the cars in a typical car dealership.
The salespeople are called Fiat specialists and are supposed to have thorough knowledge of the vehicles to share with customers, rather than spending most of the time haggling over the price.
The car's U.S. appeal probably will be a lot broader than that, however, as the repeated dramatic rising and (not so dramatic) falling of fuel prices send Americans of all ages looking for small, fuel-efficient vehicles. In that search, consumers seem to want more than just simple econo-boxes; they're often looking for unique styling and decent performance, and the Fiat 500 offers both.
Chrysler is hoping that people have mostly forgotten about Fiats that were sold here in the past, as not everyone remembers them fondly. They weren't really hardy enough for our high-speed, long-distance highway driving, and many of the cars sat for weeks or months in dealership shops awaiting parts that were hard to get.
So far, though, the reviews of the 500 are good. The car attracts attention wherever it goes, something I experienced during my recent weeklong test of the $17,500 Sport Hatchback model.
It came with the Rosso Brillante (Brilliant Red Tri-coat) exterior color ($500 extra) and had stylish Marrone/Grigio (brown/gray) leather seats with cloth inserts. The exterior red was extended to the dash and other interior areas, giving this car a truly striking appearance inside and out.
With options, my tester had a final price of $21,200, including freight, but it's possible to get just the base model and have a quite decent little car.
Despite the little engine, acceleration was much brisker that I'd expected; and on an uphill freeway ramp that I use on my morning commutes, the 500 easily reached highway speed by the time I needed to merge into traffic. The speedometer goes as high as 140 mph (wishful thinking?).
I've owned Fiats in the past and have always liked them, so I'm hoping this model will catch on with consumers ? and be a lot more reliable than its predecessors.