EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 26, 2012

Fiat 500 makes motoring a festival

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — Everyone who buys a new car first gives it a test drive. But if you climb inside a Fiat 500 next to salesman Sergio Maffeo be prepared for some friendly teasing.

“This car needs to be driven a little bit harder than normal,” he explained. “To get the full response from the car, I tell them to bring the RPMs a little bit higher. If it’s a stick, I tell them not to shift so soon. I push them to do curves. I push them to do maneuvers. Then I catch them smiling as they drive the car. I say, ‘Aha, I see you. I see you smiling.’ They say it’s because the car is so much fun.”

Maffeo is an immigrant from Turin, Italy. He would be called a sales consultant or maybe a sales associate at most car dealerships. But Kelly Fiat of Peabody — which is currently located in Danvers pending a relocation to Kelly’s upcoming import auto mall in Peabody — uses the nomenclature that Italy’s Fiat prefers for its U.S. retailers. Therefore Maffeo is called a Fiat specialist at Kelly. Of course, other dealerships would also call themselves dealerships. Kelly Fiat of Peabody is a “studio,” again a la Fiat’s custom.

If you’re getting the idea that Fiat isn’t like other auto companies, that’s exactly the point. The difference begins with the company’s signature model, the Fiat 500. It is a charming and playful imp. Yet the 500 also has a continental sophistication connected unmistakably to its Italian design — although the 500s sold in America are assembled at a Fiat plant in Mexico.

The 500 is a small, two-door, four-passenger darter with a throwback look that resembles the practical little economy model racing around Europe in the 1950s and ‘60s. The 500 is upright enough that you might call it boxy, except for its artfully rounded corners and gently curved panels.

Fiat currently sells the 500 in two body styles. The most popular is the hardtop, with a starting list price of just over $16,000. A convertible version, the 500c, lists for $4,000 more than a comparable hardtop. Its thick, flexible fabric roof operates as much like a super sun roof as a conventional convertible top. It spreads over a wide center strip, and rigid side rails above the windows remain in place when the top accordions open and stacks over the trunk lid. Its motor stops in different positions, so the roof can be partially opened. It operates at speeds up to 15 miles per hour. And when you press the trunk release when the top is stacked on the lid, the roof courteously raises about a quarter of the way so you can open the hatch.

Both hard top and convertible versions carry the same gear, including a small four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission on the starter level, called the 500 Pop. Higher levels, like the 500 Lounge, use a six-speed automatic that sacrifices some fuel economy.

The 500 has been one of my favorites since Fiat first re-entered the U.S. auto market and introduced the pint-sized model early in 2011. I’m partial to small cars in general, but I like the 500 in particular for the reason that Sergio Maffeo cites: It’s fun.

Yes, that means fun to drive. The car is so small that it can’t help but move with agility. Fiat built on that natural tendency by specially engineering the 500 for rapid, hairpin maneuvers.

But merely owning a Fiat 500 brings as much delight as its thrilling dynamics. The car is like a roving party room. Its cheerfulness and sassy attitude incite playful behavior. Its approach is so friendly, it exhibits so much disarming charm, that the 500 encourages spontaneous conversations. Little communities rise instantly in its presence, then dissolve when the smiling Fiat departs.

Sergio Maffeo characterized it well.

“It’s a toy,” he said. “But it is also a car that you can use every day. You can go to work every day smiling. What’s wrong with that?”

He described stopping in his 500 to pay the toll recently on the Tobin Bridge into Boston. “A girl looks at me and says, ‘What kind of a car is that?’ No matter where you go, people have something to say about the car.”

I witnessed the same reaction test-driving a 500c last week. The drive-up teller at Salem Cooperative Bank asked, “What kind of a car is that?” When I explained it was a Fiat, of Italian heritage, she commented sincerely, “It’s beautiful.”

When I walked past with my mutt, a neighbor asked about the little car in my driveway that week. He wondered if it is as fun to drive as it looked.

A friend stopped by my house. The sight of the new-age Fiat sparked cheerful recollections of his adventures in South America on a pro bicycle team. The team traveled in an early, European version of the 500, which Italians called the Cinquecento. Technologically, today’s modern, amenity-filled 500 bears no resemblance to the first Cinquecento, built from 1957 to 1975. But Fiat succeeded in capturing the original model’s chummy, get-around spirit. From Gene’s recollections, his South American model served as team mascot as much as transporter.

When I purchased a sheet of plywood for a home project, I stuffed it in through the open top of my 500c, so it stuck up like a sail, or maybe an enormous shark’s fin. My next-door neighbor laughed when she saw me pull in.

“You’ve been to Home Depot,” she chuckled.

“It’s the only way I could get it home,” I said.

“I really like that concept,” she said about the split-top convertible.

Maffeo conceded that the 101-horsepower engine in the standard 500 may seem inadequate to road racers who want straight-ahead speed. It’s just fine for those of us who define performance driving as road-holding and crisp handling. In any case, Fiat is addressing the power issue.

Early this year, the company introduced the 500 Abarth, a high-performance version with sportier chassis gear and a turbocharged engine that puts out 160 horsepower. The Abarth starts at $22,700.

This fall, Fiat will bring out the 500t, another turbocharged version. Its 135 horsepower will straddle the gap between the standard 500 and the 500 Abarth.

So far the strategy seems to be bringing new fans to Fiat. Maffeo said that Kelly Fiat regularly sells out of the limited production Abarth models.

“I wish we

had 50 Abarths in here. They would be sold right now,” he said.

More popularity for the Fiat 500 will help firmly cement it within the American auto scene. That’s welcome, as long the lovely little car doesn’t sacrifice any of its charm to get there.

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Jeffrey Zygmont has written about automobiles since 1982. Based in Salem, N.H., he writes books and articles about innovation, technology and culture. He can be contacted through the website jeffreyzygmont.com

2012 Fiat 500 Vehicle type: 2- door, 4-passenger, front-wheel-drive sub-compact hatchback and convertible Price range: $16,200 to $28,450 (plus options) Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles basic warranty; 4 years/unlimited miles roadside assistance; 3 years/36,000 miles free maintenance Engine: 1.4-liter I4 Power: 106 horsepower at 6,500 rpm; 98 lb.-ft. torque at 4,000 rpm Base transmission: 5-speed manual Fuel economy: 30 mpg city; 38 mpg highway Wheelbase: 91 inches Length: 140 inches Width: 64 inches Height: 60 inches Weight: 2,363 pounds Fuel capacity: 10.5 gallons Turning circle: 30.6 ft.