2012 Fiat 500 Lounge:  Cute and fun to drive2012 Fiat 500 LoungeNot so many years ago, the venerable Italian automaker Fiat had a vibrant U.S. dealer network with a diverse stable of sporty, economy and family cars. The reviews were enthusiastic, at least at first, and sales were solid. Then, word got out that Fiats were unreliable and didn’t hold up well. By the mid-1980s, Fiat was out of the U.S. market.

Now it’s back, thanks to its American subsidiary, Chrysler Group LLC. Selling tiny Fiat 500s in “studios” rather than in Dodge or Chrysler dealerships, Fiat is catching on once again, judging by sales numbers this spring: more than 3,800 in April, about double last year’s monthly average.

The 500 is cute, fun to drive, economical and bursting with retro personality. Interestingly, it recalls a subcompact model that preceded Fiat’s U.S. glory days of the 1970s and early ’80s.

Were we in the market for a Fiat 500, we likely would have bypassed our test car in favor of a plainer model. To begin with, the $23,250 price tag seemed steep. Maximum fuel economy with the Lounge package, including automatic transmission, was a middling 34 mpg, on premium fuel — well short of the ratings attained by a number of bigger, more versatile alternatives that sip regular unleaded. And if you’re more than 5-9, you’ll want to skip the sunroof. The ceiling’s contours encroach on headroom in a big way. By contrast, solid-roof and convertible 500s provide ample headroom even for 6-footers. 

When the 500 arrived last year, it was available in three flavors — the Pop, $15,500; Sport, $17,500; and Lounge, $19,500. Recently, Fiat added the Abarth, a well-equipped 500 with a 160-horsepower turbocharged Four. In a car that weighs just a ton and a quarter, that’s a recipe for performance that borders on scorching. (The rest of the 500 line has a normally aspirated 101-horsepower engine.)

The 500 has a back seat, but it’s of little use. Lately, Fiat aficionados have been all over the Internet, griping about federal crash-test results that give the 500 just three stars. It would have had a four-star rating were it not for its relatively poor side-impact protection for rear passengers. Cars built after July 2011 did well in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, receiving the top score of “Good” in every category except for an “Acceptable” score in head and neck protection.

The 500 is fun to drive and provides a composed ride, though interior noise levels are high. Assembled in Mexico, the car seems well built, with good quality materials. Our Lounge was equipped with many luxury features, including satellite radio, optional leather upholstery and a TomTom navigation unit that snaps into a slot on the dashboard.

Too small for a growing family, but perfectly sized for urban use, the 500 is poised to challenge the dominant Mini Cooper, the Smart Fortwo and the new-for-2012 Scion iQ in the minicar market.

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn. 

Price: $23,250

Engine: 1.4-liter inline Four, 101 horsepower, 98 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Weight: 2,434 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear

Wheels: 15-inch painted aluminum

Tires: 185/55R15 all-season (base model)

Seating capacity: 4

Luggage capacity: 9.5 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 30.1 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 10.5 gallons

Fuel economy: 27/34

Fuel type: Premium (recommended)