Italy is the kind of place where bicycles and motorbikes make sense for personal transportation. The streets are narrow — extremely narrow by U.S. standards, sometimes no wider than alleyways.
Young and old people pedal bicycles and ride motorbikes. I don’t. Too scared. When I’m there, I choose something like a Fiat 500 Abarth hatchback, which I drove this week in Northern Virginia and the Washington metropolitan area.
The Fiat 500 hatchback is a subcompact, spunky little front-wheel-drive car in Abarth trim, outfitted with a turbocharged 1.4-liter, inline four-cylinder gasoline engine (157 horsepower, 183 pound-feet of torque). You get a bit more boost if you choose a standard five-speed manual transmission (160 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque). Choose the manual. It’s fun.
It is an easy, confidence-inspiring automobile to live with in an old country of old streets, congested traffic, and too many people. In an increasingly congested America, it is easy to handle, too.
But America is not Italy. Here, at least under this presidential administration, we seriously question things such as global warming. Italy has been through enough wars, hosted enough refugees tired of coping with hostile climates and put up with enough dirty air caused by seemingly endless traffic to try to do something about it.
It was in Italy that I was struck by the irony. The country produces some of the world’s fastest, most consumptive, most expensive, most beautiful cars — Ferrari, Lamborghini. Yet, you are not likely to find many of them on a street in Rome or Bologna.
Those models are vastly outnumbered by things Fiat, bicycle and motorbike. In fact, visiting the Ferrari plant in Bologna, I stopped in a laughing fit at the sight of the employee parking lot. These highly skilled craftspeople, who build some of the most sought-after cars in the world, ride to work on bicycles or motorbikes, or drive there in cars such as base Fiat 500 hatchbacks — aging Fiats at that.
We Americans tend not to see that reality when we look at Italy, which is why so many of us question global warming, and why cars such as the Fiat 500 Abarth hatchback are not terribly popular here. The Fiat 500 has been sold here since 2009, a year after what is now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles took over the bankrupt Chrysler Corp.
Funny . . . and sad. Chrysler needed a financial savior at all costs. Fiat needed an entry into the world’s booming truck market. America did not have Italian-styled narrow streets. But FCA thought it could sell little Fiat cars here, anyway.
It’s trying. FCA will have to learn that many Americans do not equate small with “cheap.” The company will have to improve its Fiat 500 materials inside and out, especially inside, where cheap vinyl dominates.
In fairness, the little Fiat 500 Abarth is fun. It is the perfect automobile for relatively short urban-suburban commutes. But think twice before taking it on long, high-speed U.S. highway drives with aggressive mixed traffic.
This car is a mild-mannered local runner.
Bottom line: The Fiat 500 is perfect for local commutes. Do not press it into any duty more demanding than that. It is available as the Abarth hatchback and 500C Abarth convertible.
Ride, acceleration and handling: It is peppy, fun. It is not a Ferrari — get my point.
Head-turning quotient: Cute.
Engine/transmission: It is sold standard with a turbocharged 1.4-liter, 16-valve, inline, four-cylinder gasoline engine with variable valve timing. Linked to a standard five-speed manual transmission, it delivers 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. I used the optional (on the Abarth) six-speed automatic transmission, which delivered 157 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque.
Trim levels: The 2017 Fiat 500 has three trim levels: Pop, Lounge and Abarth. It is a subcompact hatchback designed for urban life.
Capacities: This is a runabout. Seating is for four people. Cargo capacity with all seats in place is 9.5 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 10.5 gallons of gasoline. Premium grade is required for “best performance” in the turbocharged Abarth.
Mileage: I averaged 30 miles per gallon, combined city-highway.
Safety: Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes, ventilated front and solid rear; four-wheel anti-lock brake protection; traction and stability control; post-collision safety system; and front and rear head air bags.
Pricing: The 2017 500 Abarth hatchback fully loaded starts at $26,310. Local FCA dealers are willing to bargain. The car is selling for an average of $25,128, out the door, in this area.