It's called the Cinquecento in Italy, but the Fiat 500 spells cheeky fuel-saving funster in any language.
Of all many new arrivals from the revitalized Chrysler organization, the one car on everyone's mind is the Italian-designed, built-in-Mexico Fiat.
The original 500 dates back to 1957 and was Fiat's way to get Italians off their Vespa motor scooters and into a more practical four-wheeled conveyance. At the time, French, German and other European automakers were busy ramping up production of their own tiny cars, a pattern the British would also follow with the advent of the Mini in 1959.
The Mini's successful 2003 relaunch under BMW's direction set the stage for a similar return for a brand new Fiat 500 that arrived in Europe for 2007 following a three decade absence. It's now set to debut here as a 2012 model.
Comparisons between the 500 to the Mini are inescapable, although the Fiat is a full 15 centimetres shorter and 5.6 centimetres narrower than its competitor and provides 16.5 centimetres less distance between the front and rear wheels.
The 500 hatchback's diminutive size is slightly offset by a relatively tall roofline, but it still remains the smallest four-seater on the market. Chrysler-Fiat refers to the 500 as having "city-friendly proportions," which translates into room for two adults in front plus a couple of very small children or pets occupying the folding rear seat.
That should be of only passing concern for the hordes of 500 fans who will likely flock to the 58 newly branded Fiat dealerships in Canada for an early viewing and test-drive of this iconic small car. What they'll discover is cutesy set of wheels that stays faithful to the 1957 design, except that a water-cooled four-cylinder motor now resides in front, instead of the original's rear-mounted air-cooled two-cylinder powerplant.
The standard 1.4-litre engine is unique to the 500 in the Fiat line and its components have been designed to maximize power and fuel efficiency while keeping emissions in check. Peak output is 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, which might not sound like a lot, but in fact it should prove sufficient to propel the lightweight 1,070-kiloogram Fiat at a decent clip. The 500's fuel economy numbers haven't yet been released but will likely be better than 8.0 l/100 in the city and 6.5 on the highway with the standard five-speed manual transmission (a six-speed automatic is optional), similar to the Mini Cooper's rating.
Ordering a 500 will require selecting from three distinct trim designations, 14 exterior colours and the same number of seat colour and material combinations.
For about $17,400, the base 500 - called "Pop" - features keyless remote entry, power windows, locks and heated outside power mirrors, vehicle-information centre, basic audio package and 15-inch wheels with hubcaps.
Moving up to the $19,900 Sport adds air conditioning, a tighter suspension, sport-tuned exhaust and steering calibration, distinctive front and rear styling, body cladding, fog lamps, five-speed manual gearbox and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Along with the six-speed automatic transmission, the top-end Lounge at $20,900 loads up with most of the Sport's goodies (but with 15-inch alloys) plus a fixed-glass sunroof, (a power operated version is optional), premium audio system chrome exterior accents and up-level cloth seat covers.
Among the more interesting options is a portable navigation system that docks onto the top of the instrument panel. Also offered is a system that allows the driver to download onto a memory stick the car's environmental efficiency stats related to how the 500 is being driven. When plugged into a personal computer after each trip, the system displays the amount of tailpipe emissions produced and suggests methods that drivers can employ to reduce their impact.
Given the 500's relatively miniscule engine, its footprint is not likely to be that big, but Fiat is obviously banking on big success for its little gas sipper. If initial interest and upwardly creeping fuel prices continue, the 500 could wind up batting 1000.
What you should know:
2012 Fiat 500
Type: Two-door, front-wheel-drive sub-compact hatchback
Engine (hp): 1.4-litre four-cylinder (101)
Transmissions: Five-speed manual; six-speed automatic (opt.)
Market position: While most other automakers have micro cars or new "city" cars, Chrysler only has the Dodge Caliber wagon. The new Fiat 500 temporarily fills this need while providing a gateway for other Fiat products down the road.
Points: Sharp-looking little machine maintains ties with its past; Economical four-cylinder engine; Base 500 costs $7,600 less than better-equipped Mini Copper classic, weighs 90 kilograms less, too; Sliding canvass-top convertible, more powerful Abarth models to follow; Tight rear-seat room could dissuade buyers; Watch sales take off if gas prices begin to climb.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; driver's knee airbag; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
Base price (incl. Destination): $17,400