Roving IQ: Fiat 500 - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Photo: Fiat USA
During our trip to Italy, we rented two cars in two different locations. And both times we ended up with a gray 2011 Fiat 500, an automobile staple in pretty much every part of Italy. I didn't drive one mile of either car, but from a passenger's perspective, it was fairly comfortable and allowed enough room to slightly recline the seat and ample window space for me to easily gawk at the stunning views out the window. My car-obsessed husband Scott spent a considerable amount of time behind the wheel and apparently gathered some pretty strong opinions about our tiny but functional mode of transportation. 

Introducing Scott, in his second automotive-focused guest post! 
"One of the most stressful parts of any vacation can be the mode of transportation one chooses to use. Whether it's by plane, boat, train or automobile, you can travel in luxury or borderline squalor.  During our last vacation in Italy, we experienced vices and virtues of all of the modes of transportation listed above. Aside from the ten-hour flight to and from Italy, Julie and I spent most of our time in a new 2011 Fiat 500. Keep reading for the good, the bad and the ugly on this Italian favorite.
Before I get to the good qualities about the Fiat, here's a little history lesson. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You may be asking the same question about the Fiat 500 and its direct competitor, the Mini Cooper. Both were created due to the need of small, practical and efficient cars in a post-war economy. The Cooper came off the assembly line in 1959, two years after the Fiat 500 was released. The Cooper and the Fiat 500 were originally powered by motors that were smaller and less powerful than the motor you will currently find in my riding lawnmower. From 1957-1975, Italians and many other Europeans counted on their Fiat 500s, along with their trusty Vespa scooters as their main modes of transportation. Even today, you will see an entire family packed into their small egg-shaped, 1960-something Fiat driving down the cobblestone roads in Rome or up and down the hilly roads in Positano. In 2007, the Fiat 500 model returned to Europe, following the re-release of the Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen Beetle and has just recently gone on sale here in the States. 
THE GOODYou never know what you are going to get when you rent a car in Europe, literally.  When we met up with Julie’s cousin John and his family in Greve, we took a few moments to look at each other’s rental cars.
“What car did you get?” he asked me. “A new Fiat 500. You know, they just came out in the US.” He looked at me with a stumped look. “What did they give you?” I asked. “Some diesel Ford. It’s alright,” he replied back.
It was actually an Opel, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I mean really, how many Americans know Opel, or Lancia, or even Fiat, for that matter. Well, you better get to know them, especially Fiat. Here's why: Fiat currently owns a majority percentage of the Chrysler Corporation and will be supplying the chassis and powertrains for many of their future cars that are smaller, lighter and more efficient. Size is definitely the first thing that draws your attention to the Fiat 500. The car blends in with the other compact cars in Italy, where great gas mileage and the ability to park in tight places mean everything. However, if you are driving down a typical suburban neighborhood road in the United States, many onlookers will think that you’re driving a go-kart. But truthfully, size is one of the greatest things about this car. From the driver’s seat, there's plenty of shoulder, hip and legroom with space to spare. Pop the hatch in back and you will have a generous amount of space to store your luggage, multiple bottles of Italian wines (red of course) and a couple of bottles of Olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. 
Even loaded down with a lots of luggage, the 500 handled quite well. It was eager to turn in on sharp corners with fairly minimal understeer and the rear end would track closely to the front. If pushed hard, the rear end would slightly step out for a brief moment. Quiet fun in a front-wheel drive car. The steering had a nice weight to it, but when the car was being pushed hard, the steering feel would go numb and offer little feedback. I’m sure this doesn’t mean much to most American tourists, but I’m not sure if I can overlook it. So we have a willing chassis, but how about the motor? Read on.
THE BADThe motor. Although it’s fairly smooth and quiet, it just doesn’t have the zip to be driven on the long, flat and boring stretches of asphalt we call our American highway system. If you want to enjoy it on twisty canyon roads, you better be ready to keep the motor singing near its 7,000 rpm redline to wring out all 101 horsepower from its 1.4 liter four cylinder engine. Luckily, the five speed manual transmission is fairly willing to work with you as you row the gears. I couldn’t even imagine driving this car with an automatic.  
I could nit pick the somewhat cheesy, hard plastic interior dash and other interior bits, but I also think they add to the charm of the car. However, I cannot overlook the motor in the Fiat 500 and for me it is the deal breaker. If you are power hungry as well, wait for the Fiat 500 Abarth model that will offer a turbo charged motor and nearly 150 horsepower. 
THE UGLY: I know you are expecting me to say its looks and its gaudy dashboard, but truthfully, the only thing ugly about this car is how the American public will receive it. Has America wrapped its mind around smaller, more efficient cars? I’m getting there, but I still like cars that are loud, have a healthy appetite for high-octane fuel and scare the neighborhood kids when I start them. Many Americans feel they need twenty cup holders, air-conditioned seats and enough cubic space to haul an entire basketball team, even if they only have one child. I really don’t care for the Fiat 500, but it makes perfect sense. Do we really still need huge, gas guzzling SUVs to haul around our seven-year-olds to soccer practice? Chevy and Ford no longer think so and that is why we have seen a major shift in their marketing plans and their current line ups. They no longer brag about hauling capabilities but gas mileage, and this is where the Fiat 500 shines. The Fiat 500 has been moving Europe from point A to point B for nearly 50 years, and I can guarantee that it is also up to the task of moving Americans from point A to point B with charm, efficiency and practicality."
Our Fiat 500
Outside of Radda in Chianti

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