Texas®

 

If ever you were going to put together the Car Dream Team or an Automotive All-Star Squad and you were basing it on only the long reputation of the contenders, the idea of taking an Italian car design, building it in Mexico and selling it via Chrysler’s dealer network would get you benched. Or worse, they would put you in a room with really, really thick, cushy wall paper.

For much of the last half of the 20th century this combination would have been considered the holy trinity of build-quality issues and could possibly be the kind of thing that could open a seal in Dante’s descent to hell.

Italians are known for passion, fashion, feisty, high-maintenance exotic cars, and some of the most temperamental unions in the world. Chrysler was known as a leader in the displacement of egomaniac CEO’s and well, lets be nice, the initial push to cheep labor in Mexico was less than problem-free for the car business.

The simple fact that the perpetual emotion machine at Chrysler ground to a halt was not shocking. Every 10 years or so it seems the big three were on the brink of becoming the big two. In the 80’s it was “saved” by Lee Iacocca, and the cheep-as-dirt-quality-vacuum called the K Car. In the 1990’s, it was the LH platform and an over-reliance on trucks and Jeep. In the 2000’s it was, well there’s the problem: it just wasn’t.

As good as ChryCo’s big car products became after the “marriage” to Mercedes, their little cars languished into the Neon – not that bad – then the Caliber, which was easily one of the few cars ever to not exceed the car it was replacing in any way but cost per unit.

I have been rather hard on Chrysler’s small cars for good reason: they simply don’t compete in a global market with the cars they have been building. The closest their small cars have been to acceptable was when they introduced the Neon. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than their other small cars had ever been. They could at least see where they had to be. Instead of moving closer with the Caliber, they fell off the truck all together.

Now enter the Italians, via the global automotive company Fiat. If there is one thing they do well – and I mean very well – is build small cars. If you don’t know, Fiat is very much like Ford, a globally integrated technology and car company that is primarily owned and controlled by trust extensions of the founding family. In Fiat’s case, it is one of the wealthiest families in Europe: the Agnelli’s.

Fiat now is the overall holding company that owns Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Fiat Light Trucks.

If you were looking for a high drama the Agnelli’s would rival any super-wealthy story Hollywood could muster, but I will get back on focus with the car that has become the brightest little light in Chrysler’s future.

The 500 is small, but through some wonderful automotive origami, it has more usable space than many other cars in the Micro class. At 6’1” and over 185, these days I never found the Fiat to be claustrophobic. And as a matter of fact, I was surprised at how roomy the little thing really was.

With the 500 you will never be on the first-to-call list for helping someone move or for carpooling, but it is amazing how flexible the car really is. I was never at a loss for places to stuff gear bags and other bits into. Honestly, it may not be the car to try and take the foursome and their clubs to the course, but for an in town two person runner, it’s fantastic.

I say two person, but really, if forced, you can put two more in the back. And the 500 actually has more room back there than most micros, but folded down, it is amazing how much stuff can occupy the back of this car.

I have long been a fan of small nimble cars. In the case of the Fiat 500; think more Mini than (not so) Smart car. It’s lithe and agile and a blast to drive when you push the tach up. But realistically, it’s not really the car you would feel comfortable on long highway runs around here.

The Mini is a better driving package than the 500, but it is also north of $10,000 more than the as-tested price of $19.200.00. This included satellite radio and power everything, in a minimalist package that scoots.

Some folks asked if it was a (not so) Smart car while I was driving around, and I guess the size and price might be the principal reason for that. It’s smaller overall than the wheelbase of a Tahoe or Suburban, but it also gets 30/38 EPA MPG ratings. With enthusiastic pedal application and manual gearbox, I was running in the high 20’s to low 30’s during a grin-filled romp around North Texas.

The Fiat 500 and the (not so) Smart car are very comparable on price and even intended market, but with the 500 you get what seems to be a complete, if slightly shrunken, car package. Any time I have experienced the (not so) Smart, it has been with considerable fear and discomfort of knowing it has less power and a smaller overall size than my motorcycle. The lack of power and the idea that a good with a backpack and saddle bags in tow, I could carry more back from the grocery store on two wheels for half the price is the main reason I call it the (not so) Smart.

For many years the only way we got to experience some of these fun little cars from Italy was on vacation or when the neighbor found an old one to work on. Fiat just didn’t really bother with the American market, which now, is a key part of their overall plan.

When they came in to “rescue” Chrysler from bankruptcy proceedings they got more than a nationwide dealer presence, they got some of the savvy and swagger from the perennial underdog in the American market. Their plants in Brampton, Ontario and Toluca, Mexico (where Fiat is building the 500), are considered two of the best manufacturing plants in the world and Chrysler has the absolute best parts acquisition system in the world.

Funny thing: the plant in Brampton was built while Chrysler was being rescued by Renault, and the parts system is one of the main reasons Mercedes rescued Chrysler in the 1990’s.

So hopefully this trip to financial rehab for Chrysler means the lurching from boom-to-bust is over. It was exhausting trying to keep up.

More importantly, they have, for the first time ever, a small car to sell that is actually worth buying. I only hope the Italians can help Chrysler do something interesting with the next Avenger/200 replacement. Just after they picked up the 500, they decided to leave me a 200 convertible. Let me just say the leftovers have spoiled.

Welcome back to the American market. Glad to see ‘ya.