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Small, stylish Fiat 500 makes comeback in US

March 24, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Fiat has been out of the American market for 27 years, but the Italian brand of inexpensive cars is coming back to the U.S.

"We really see a huge opportunity with a small car segment growing in North America. And we're able to bring a really sexy, stylish product," said Laura Soave of Fiat North America.

The Fiat Cinquecento - or 500 - is meant to appeal to people who'd like to drive a small car that's fashionable.

The Fiat gets style points for sure, with its common theme of circular shapes.

It also gets thrift points: 30 to 38 mpg from the small high-tech engine and a starting price of $15,500.

Fiat, which is now aligned with Chrysler, made minimal changes to the car for life here in America. For example, bigger cup holders, an armrest for the driver and an optional automatic transmission, as most people here don't like to shift their own gears.

Comparisons to the Mini Cooper will be obvious. It sort of paved the way for interesting small cars. The Fiat actually costs less, though it doesn't quite have the Mini's performance- yet.

The name Fiat was coined around the dawn of the 20th Century and means, "Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino" (Italian car built in Turin). In the 1970s, when Fiat started to become popular in the U.S., people assigned a new nickname because of their cantankerous and costly-to-repair nature, "Fix It Again, Tony."

"A lot of time has passed, actually, yes. Our quality has improved just like everybody else. You know, that was way back then in the 70s and 80s when people had some concerns with quality," said Soave.

The car's already a hit in Italy, where the Fiat brand has always been a mainstay.