A cutie, yes, but will it also be a heartbreaker?

Warren Brown
Columnist May 20, 2011

It is a commuter designed for playing hooky, a sparkling bean of a car seemingly more toy than passenger conveyance, yet one serious in all respects of an automobile.

If it can get through 2012, its first full year on sale in North America, without any major safety recalls or other quality problems, it will win the hearts and wallets of many American consumers seeking fuel efficiency in the form of a tiny, attractively sculpted car with guts.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

It is the Fiat 500, a front-wheel-drive subcompact hatchback now available in the U.S. and Canadian markets as a hardtop and convertible. I drove a hardtop version, the Fiat 500 Sport, with a five-speed manual transmission. I fell in love with the thing and drove it all over Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.

But it was a love reminiscent of a long-ago heartthrob in New Orleans, during prom season in my senior year of high school, when a promised date with a Creole beauty was canceled . . . because she was pregnant . . . with some other boyfriend’s child.

It was an impressionable disappointment, the kind that makes you swear off things that should not be sworn off, not for long, anyway; the kind that Fiat, the Italian automobile manufacturer with a controlling interest in Chrysler, cannot afford to make in its first Fiat-branded product introduction in America since 1983.

I want the Fiat 500 to succeed as badly as I wanted that date with the girl I’ll call Marguerite. But there is a history. When it was here last, Fiat busted many baby boomers’ first-car dreams. It didn’t matter whether it was fall, winter or prom season, the one certain thing about a Fiat automobile was the uncertainty of its reliability. Back then, we had a joke. “Fiat,” we said, stands for “Fix It Again, Tony.”

I brought that baggage to my sample of the 2012 Fiat 500 Sport hatchback. I was jazzed by its looks — such a pretty little car, almost cuddly, shorter by six inches than the formerly shortest car on sale in the United States, the Mini Cooper.

To me, the Fiat 500 Sport looked and drove even better than the Mini Cooper hatchback, which is saying something, because I liked the Mini Cooper so much, I bought one.

I am not likely to do the same thing with the Fiat 500 Sport, not yet. I have some Fiat memories almost as painful as my memory of Marguerite. Such thoughts intrude on any likelihood of commitment. But I am seriously tempted. This is one joyful little automobile.

I use the word “joyful” purposefully. Looking at the Fiat 500 Sport made me smile. It had the same effect on nearly everyone else who gave eye time to the car. “So cute!” was the common refrain.

Cute is one thing. Performance on the road is quite another. Fiat 500s sold in the United States come standard with a fuel-injected 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine (101 horsepower, 98 foot-pounds of torque). I figured the test vehicle would be zippy in the manner of a little car putting an occasional grin on a commute. I did not think it would turn a commute into hooky — a day-long road trip.

But, that’s what happened. The Fiat 500 Sport was beyond zippy. It was better than zoom. It was downright gutsy, a car that begged to be driven, which is what I did. I canceled my planned meetings, looped through the District and headed west to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where, in the middle of the workday I found many empty side roads on which to enjoy the little car.

My romp ended with closer examination of the Fiat 500 Sport? What am I missing? What is going to prove to be the Marguerite Factor?

I closely examined fit and finish and found some things wanting in those areas. Some rubber and plastic pieces around the rear windows and rear wheel wells weren’t perfectly mated. The Fiat 500’s interior is ergonomically sensible and beautiful in its simplicity — everything exactly where it is supposed be, nothing extraneous. But, alas, interior materials, such as the plastic inserts atop the dashboard and in the door panels, are cheap bordering on tacky, not the sort of thing you would find in a rival Audi or Volkswagen.

The same thing can be said for the various handles and levers used to operate the Fiat 500 Sport’s seats. They feel cheap, flimsy in comparison with components in, say, a base Mini Cooper hatchback.

But a base Mini Cooper carries a sticker price of $19,400. A base Fiat 500 goes for $15,500, and the Fiat 500 Sport, a better comparison with the base Mini Cooper in terms of equipment, has an asking price of $17,500.

Warning to Fiat: Most of us are willing to pay a few dollars more for better interior materials and superb fit and finish. Check Audi, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen.

In terms of negatives, that is about all I can come up with. And it’s so entirely subjective — what is “cheap” to me may be perfectly sensible to someone else — it’s almost meaningless.

Truth is I love the Fiat 500 Sport. But, for the moment, I remain afraid to really, truly trust it. Give me time.

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