2012 Fiat 500 Lounge Hatchback road test: Tiny car with big-car luxury

2012 Fiat 500 LoungeIt has been called everything from “the cutest little thing” to a “helmet on wheels,” but nobody denies that a 2012 Fiat 500 is a jaunty mini-car that could work really well for urbanites, and  pretty well for commuting or errand-running suburbanites.

The third installment of My Adventures with the Fiat 500  was a stint with the Fiat 500 Lounge Hatchback, the Italian-made, features-laden little runabout that recently arrived in the United States as the result of Fiat’s controlling interest in Chrysler.

Despite what others have called it, I would say the 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge — Cinquecento to those of you want to emphasize its Italian heritage — is best thought of as a tiny luxury  car.

Uniquely designed and handsomely styled inside with cream-colored trim and olive green accents matching the car’s exterior, the Fiat 500 has most of the high-end comfort and convenience features that you will find on top-tier models of brands that cost many thousands of dollars more.

Climate control. Check. Driver seat memory. Check. Six-speaker premium sound system. Check. Satellite radio hookup. Check. Bluetooth hands-free telephone access. Check. Steering wheel mounted audio controls. Check. Driver information center with trip computer. Check. Ipod capability, Check. Power windows, Check. And that’s just a partial list of the standard features.

The $1,500 Customer Preferred Package includes Marrone (brown) leather seating with heated buckets in front, 6-speed automatic transmission, rear park assist and auto-dimming rear mirror.

A power sunroof adds $850, a portable navigation system raises the price another $400 and an additional $300 more will get premium 15-inch wheels.

Fiat 500 Lounge instrumentsSo there you have it. The complete mini-luxury car goes out the door for $23,250,  a premium of $3,750 more than the $19,500 base price.

Obviously more flash than dash, this Fiat gets by with a power-deprived, multi-air 4-cylinder engine that generates 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque.

Teamed with the 6-speed automatic transmission, it will get you from 0 to 60 mph, but don’t expect to get there in a hurry. Figure on a minimum of about 10 seconds on a level road. You can also cruise in reasonable comfort at legal-limit+ speeds but don’t plan on passing that 18-wheeler on a two-lane road unless there is a lot of clear space ahead.

You can extract a bit more performance by hitting the sport button, which adjusts steering effort, holds gears longer and clicks off quicker shifts. It makes the little car seem a bit faster, but I found Sport to be more jerky and happily spent most of my time in the standard mode.

2012 Fiat 500 cargo spaceThat said, my time with the car was spent in and around the flatlands of Charleston, SC, and power was adequate for squirting in and out of traffic on the often-narrow roads. And the car’s size was great for getting in and out of spaces in Charleston’s notoriously tight parking garages.

Fuel economy estimates by the EPA put city mileage at 27 mpg and highway cruising at 34 mpg. I averaged a tad under 31 mpg in a week of mostly around-town motoring.

Despite its size, the 2012 Fiat 500 has more practicality than might be expected. You actually can get four adults inside, although it takes a bit of athleticism for two back-seat passengers of average size to wedge their way on to the rear bench, and they won’t want to be in there for the long haul.

However, for shopping trips or weekend getaways by two people, the luggage compartment has 9.5 cubic feet of space accessible through the rear hatchback and that can easily be expanded by folding the rear seatbacks forward.