what's now {small cars)



NEW 200s arid 300s are arriving at Chrysler dealerships alongside the 500, the first new Fiat sold here since 1983.With 101 horsepower on tap, the Fiat probably shouldn't have a bigger name than the two Chryslers. So translate it into Italian, and the stylishly Spartan Fiat becomes "Cinquecento!'

A quick drive of a rear-engine, 499cc Iwo-cylinder 1969 Fiat 500 turned up as few similarities as the VW Beetle versus New Beetle, though you can replicate the Italian bus-driving position in the new 500.

Like the original, la nuova 500 is tall for its overall length. If you're 6 feet tall and want to see the whole speedometer, tilt the wheel to its top position, fold down the Ncrth American-spec driver's-only right-elbow armrest, and with your elbows out, you'll feel pretty close to your front-seat passenger, though with the ample leg- and headroom of the original.

The understated retro interior takes cheap and cheerful to a new level. If old and new

300s ultimately are appliances, it's instructive to remember that the Italians build some very chic stoves and refrigerators.

The drive is soft, with moderate body roll and predictable understeer.The suspension has been revised and stiffened for the U.S. market. Though no go-kart, with its very short wheelbase.the 500 pitches a bit over crummy roads.

The Sport trim level has stiller shocks and springs, but the difference in ride and handling compared with the Lounge model is marginal. In Sport mcde, the manual Sport's throttle response is sharpened. The sport mode holds gears longer in the automatic-only Lounge, making the engine seem louder and thrashiez; and 1-2 upshifts are abrupt. Anyway, the 500 is way more entertaining with its five-speed manual. Its snicky shifts and easy clutch takeup ought to bring three-pedal novices into the fold.

The electronic power steering offered zero feedback on a first drive, enough to make a prudent driver slow down more than necessary for fast corners. Fiat has fixed the steering, and an overnight drive closer to launch proved engineers indeed had dialed in decent road feel.With steering corrected, the pre-Abarth Fiat 500 earns praise as a stylish, entertaining econobox— the proverbial slow car that'3 fun to drive fast.todd lassa

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