Friday, January 5, 2018


Fiat returned to the U.S. market with lots of fanfare and a clever advertising campaign about six years ago after an absence of nearly three decades, but I have to wonder just how far entertaining commercials and cutting prices will carry the Italian automaker this go-around.

Recently released numbers  for 2017 show a steep decline for all three versions of the bell cow of the Fiat fleet, the 500, 500L, and 500X with sales off by 18, 47, and 35 percent from the previous year, respectively. (I use the word “fleet” advisedly; there really is only one other Fiat offered here, the 124 Spider, which showed sales growth of 81 percent over 2016, but you’re talking about only 4,478 vehicles for the year.)

Together, the three models hit the 22,014 sales mark in 2017. By comparison, the number of 500s sold in 2012, its first full year on the market, was 43,772.

This drop comes despite price-cutting across the board. The entry-level 2017 Fiat 500 Pop model carries an MSRP of 14,995, a decrease of $1,000 from when the 2012 model was introduced in 2011.

MSRP for the 2017 Lounge trim was cut $2,000 to $18,395, and the track-ready, top-of-the-line Abarth with its 1.4-liter, turbo-charged 4-cylinder engine was reduced $2,580 to get under $20,000 for the first time at $19,995.

Like some other vehicles that break new styling ground or have an appeal to buyers who like to think out of the box — I’m thinking here of Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, Ford’s Thunderbird, and Chevy’s HHR — perhaps the 500 has hit its saturation point. It’s like everybody who wants one already has bought one and nobody else, or hardly anybody, is interested.

“Perky” apparently only goes so far.

Of course, maybe I shouldn’t be that quick to write it off. My history with predictions frankly isn’t very good. Years ago I remember writing that I didn’t see much of a future for cable TV because all three networks at the time were available over the air. How did that turn out? (At least I wasn’t alone in that. My instructor thought that was an astute observation.)

And the Fiat 500 isn’t without its virtues.

In addition to the three trim levels, the 500 also is offered as a convertible, dubbed the 500c or Cabrio, which adds $1,495 to the price in all three trims. The cloth top retracts to the rear spoiler riding on along stationary rails. It’s more of an extended sunroof really, and can be locked at the halfway point or fully retracted.

The first three years of the Topless in Miami Presented by Haartz convertible competition sponsored by the Southern Automotive Association it won its class rather handily with the 2012 500c winning in 2011, the Gucci edition in 2012, and the Abarth in 2013, its first year on the market.

My recent time in the 2017 500c Abarth showed that the venerable subcompact hasn’t lost any of its charm. It’s certainly not that its showing its age or anything, but the competition is getting tougher and there are some inherent drawbacks common to just about every vehicle in the subcompact genre.

That is, not a lot of room is available in the backseat, and it’s not easy for adults to get back there either. Plus, the luggage compartment is a minuscule 5.4 cubic feet. No, this is not a vehicle made for extended family vacation trips.

But it is one that is good for scooting around urban environs, especially when it comes to parking. It’s only 144.4 inches long, which is two feet shorter than the VW Beetle Dune (another out-of-the-box option in the segment), for example, and the wheelbase of 90.6 inches is nearly 10 inches shorter than the Dune’s 100.1. (I was a little bit disappointed in the 500c’s turning circle diameter of 37.6 feet, however.)

The Abarth’s engine is tuned for 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque when mated with the 5-speed manual transmission and 157/183 with the optional 6-speed automatic. I had the automatic, but would dearly have loved to try the manual to get more out of it.

Fuel figures for the Abarth are 28 miles-per-gallon city, 34 highway with the manual and 27/32 with the automatic. One downside: Premium fuel is recommended, though 87 octane is deemed acceptable.

Remember, the Abarth is oriented toward extra performance. If fuel mileage is your goal, the 500c Pop and Lounge models are rated at 31/40 with the manual and 27/34 with the automatic, but fuel requirements are the same (91 octane recommended, 87 acceptable) and power numbers are 101 hp and 97 lb.-ft.

My test Abarth 500c included as standard features Rear Park Assist, 7-inch color cluster display, a turbo boost gauge, premium sound system, the company’s UConnect 5.0 system for infotainment functions, leather-wrapped instrument panel cluster, perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, tilt steering column, driver seat memory, aluminum pedals, dual bright exhaust tips, fog lights, and red brake calipers.

Adding options like a Popular Equipment Package (satellite radio, auto air, and heated front seats), Nero (black) seats, the automatic transmission, GPS navigation, and 17-inch wheels over the standard 16s plus the $995 destination and delivery charge ran the total for my test Abarth to $26,660.

What I liked about the 2017 Fiat 500c Abarth: Driving this car does put you in a good frame of mind. The grille and headlamps give the front fascia a rather impish grin, and the exterior color is carried over to the dash and other interior spots for a nice, clean appearance.

What I didn’t like about the 2017 Fiat 500c Abarth: The 5-inch screen for navigation and other functions is too small for me, and the people at Fiat need to talk to the people at Chrysler about simplifying the operation of the UConnect infotainment functions. Buttons and touch points are on the smaller side and it isn’t as intuitive as the system in Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles.

Would I buy the 2017 Fiat 500c Abarth? As a second car, yes.

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