Fiat 500: "Possibly the Best Small Car on the Planet"

We motor on about how it shouldn't be too hard to squeeze more efficiency of American cars, and that the Europeans and the Japanese are doing it already. Here is another example: the Fiat 500 or Cinquecento. Eric Reguly of the Globe and Mail rocketed around Torino at 100 MPH and says "Fiat has created a marvellous car, perhaps the best small car on the planet. It's a compelling combination of value, style, safety, performance and parkability, though reliability is unknown. (the joke used to be that FIAT was short for "Fix it again, Tony) He continues: "I know this car would obliterate machines like the (smaller) Mercedes Smart and the (larger) Toyota Yaris in the Canadian and American markets."

"In terms of fun, driveability and space, it kills the Smart car. In terms of price, it kills the Mini. In terms of style, it kills the Yaris and rivals like the Honda Fit. If Ford, GM and Chrysler were smart, they would build a city car like this. Fiat has made the smallest cars desirable again." ::Globe and Mail

The new 500 had to be a nostalgic reinterpretation of the old 500, yet be completely new. Fiat, led by Italian-Canadian chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne, appears to have struck the right balance.

The new car, though bigger, is instantly recognizable as a 500, in the way that the new Mini Cooper shares a similar shape with the old Mini. That's where the similarity ends. Underneath the skin, the new 500 is a thoroughly modern machine.

It comes with two gasoline engines — 1.2-litre and 1.4-litre — and a turbo diesel of 1.3 litres with a claimed fuel consumption of only 4.2 litres/100 kilometres in combined city and highway driving. That's the equivalent of 67 miles a gallon.

There are seven airbags and electronic stability control is standard on some models, available on others.

The 1.4-litre car we drove was fairly fast, with a 0-100 km/h time of 10.5 seconds. The 500 is clearly not a sports car, nor is it meant to be. But it is no slug.

The handling is rewarding and the engine is responsive, though it has to be revved high to move ahead of the pack when the light turns green.

Marchionne has said he wants the 500 to be the "iPod" of cars — simple, popular and fashionable. To broaden its appeal among the fashion-conscious and young drivers, it is available in 500,000 possible design combinations. Options include 15 types of seat upholstery, 12 body colours, nine types of wheels, 19 different stickers, three interior fragrances, an iPod player, a USB port and chrome galore.

Loading the car up with goodies and the more powerful engines can jack up the base price of €10,500 ($15,000) to €14,500.