Model: 2012 Fiat 500 C Lounge Cabrio
Exterior color: White
Interior: Red and ivory
Engine: 1.4-liter, four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 32 highway, 27 city
Dealer: Crown Fiat
Price (as tested): $25,550
Twenty minutes into our test drive of the adorable new Fiat 500, two women literally waved me off the road near a Chickamaugua Lake marina.
"So, are you going to buy it?" one of them asked as I pulled to the curb and rolled down the window.
After explaining I was there simply to photograph the car at the lake, the women informed me they'd already test-driven the Fiat soft-top at the dealership, Crown Fiat.
When I got back to the office and showed photographs of the Fiat's snazzy red-leather seats to a co-worker, he informed me he'd already seen the 500 soft-top at the mall.
You just can't impress anybody anymore.
All this buzz, however, is good news for Fiat, the Italian car company that partnered with Chrysler in 2009 to distribute cars in North America.
The 500, the only Fiat model available in the United States so far, is a genuine conversation starter. From its adorable-as-a-puppy architecture to its red-and-white leather seats (if the 500 were a computer, it would be an early iMac), our 500 test car made a true design statement.
A new Fiat store is under construction adjacent to the Crown Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealership on Chapman Road. Tim Roussell, Crown's general manager, says the new Fiat dealership will have a boutique feel and that most of the sales will be special orders.
When you take into account colors, options and graphics, there are an estimated 500,000 design possibilities for the Fiat 500.
Parents, did you know the character Luigi in the movie "Cars" is a 1959 Fiat 500? The 2012 Fiat 500 looks like Luigi's grandson, with a chrome smile and happy eyes. The contrasting red cloth top on our cabrio test car adds nice visual interest.
Inside, the gorgeous red-leather seats would be at home in a Lamborghini. The simple dash is made of a polished white plastic that looks like high-grade enamel. The steering wheel is a work of art, clad in white leather with a red Fiat emblem in the middle.
The red roof retracts automatically to splash the cabin with sun. If history is any guide, look for the cabrio Fiat 500 to appeal to the fairer sex.
Leg room in the front seats is generous and adequate in the back for children and smaller adults. Trunk space is limited, but the rear seats fold down to expand the cargo area for times when there are only one or two passengers.
The Fiat is powered by a four-cylinder Chrysler engine which makes 101 horsepower. It's not a muscle car, but with a curb weight of just over a ton, the Fiat 500 is actually fairly nimble. On a test drive on Aminicola Highway, the 500 zipped easily in and out of traffic. The steering is surprisingly well balanced for a subcompact car.
Expect the 500 to compare well with the Mini Cooper, which retails for several thousand dollars more, according to Crown sales consultant Larry White.
The slick-shifting, six-speed transmission helps push the 500's fuel consumption numbers to 32 mpg highway, 27 mpg city.
U.S. automakers know pickup trucks. German companies know engineering. Asian companies know reliability. But nobody trumps Italian car companies on design.
The Fiat 500 comes in five trim levels -- Pop, Sport and Lounge -- and the base car starts at about $15,500. Our top-of-the-line Lounge Cabrio test car stickered for $25,550.
The reintroduction of the Fiat brand in the American market after almost three decades is a good thing for variety and customer choice. The Fiat 500 is a solid little car with an extra measure of personality. And what little kid wouldn't want to have Luigi living in the garage?
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...