2012 Fiat 500 first drive: This one stands out in the crowd

2012 Fiat 500

2012 Fiat 500 Pink Edition

Technically, the Fiat 500 is a subcompact, but that’s really not a fair description because this tiny tribute to Italian form and function is a whole lot more than simply a small car.

Yes, its dimunitive size and engine  shout “city car,”  but even a relatively short drive in the 500 reveals an outsize personality that takes it beyond the boundaries of elemental transportation.

On looks alone (cute, adorable, huggable, lovable, sexy — mix and match your own set of adjectives ) it stands above its more pedestrian, more practical competition, and even nicely straddles the line between feminine and masculine.

As such, it should be an excellent showcase for Fiat’s return to the United States and its partnership with the resurgent Chrysler Corp.

So, let’s take a quick look at this modern take on an Italian classic.

At 139.6 inches long, 64.1inches wide, and 59.8 inches wide, the three-door hatchback is actually six inches shorter than BMW’s Mini coupe.  It’s wheelbase stretches only to 90.6 inches and it weighs a mere 2,350 pounds.

Power to the front wheels comes from a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder, 101-horsepower engine mated to a five-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic transmission. The pace is necessarily leisurely (0-60 mph in a minimum of about 10 seconds) but piloting he Fiatis  never dull for anyone who enjoys driving.

I had a chance to take a spin in a new 500 on some twisty backroads in southern New York  and the experience was pure joy.

There I was, pedal to the metal much of the time, working my up and down through the slick-shifting five forward gears, and seldom breaking the speed limit. It was a reminder about how much fun it is to scoot about in a small car.

Along the way, it occurred to me there’s no reason to relegate the Fiat 500 to city duty only. It handled decently and the ride quality was certainly acceptable for a car its size.

I could imagine myself traveling happily from, say, village to village during leaf-peeping season in Vermont, or on a summer jaunt to an oceanside resort (especially in the soft-top model that costs a few thousand dollars more), or simply on the daily commute from the suburbs to the big city.

I would not, however, choose the Fiat 500 for a cross-country trip. Well, maybe if I were a bit younger . . .

And, lest I forget, an EPA-rated 30 mg city/38 highway is just so much icing on this tasty little cupcake.

As cute as it is on the outside, the 500 is equally adorable on the inside. From a giant speedometer that houses the outside-temperature gauge, trip computer and more, to the brightly colored dashboard panels, the car has a pop art sense that perfectly matches its cheerful exterior.

But there’s more to this Fiat than what simply meets the eye. There are plenty of safety features, including seven airbags; a surprisingly good audio system;  and a cleverly crafted interior that  makes room for up to four adults of average size, or two adults off on a vacation. Fold down the rear seatbacks and there is a surprisingly large amount of space that can be accessed through the rear hatch.

The Fiat may not have the ultimate practicality of a Honda Fit, the 40+ mileage of a Ford Fiesta or the driver-oriented excitement of a Mini.

But it has something none of them can match for a similar price — a unique presence that separates it from the pack.