By Charles Krome
The EPA fuel efficiency ratings for the 2012 Fiat 500 have now been announced, with the Chrysler Group’s much-hyped hatchback achieving 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway/33 mpg combined when kitted out with a five-speed manual and a line of 27/34/30 with a six-speed automatic. But as high as those numbers are, they represent somewhat of a disappointment given the competition.
Now, the natural choice of rivals here is the MINI hardtop, since both vehicles are small niche products that will claim a lot of their sales based on style, so here is how they match up against each other in some of the more relevant measures.
Length: 139.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,350 lbs. (w/manual transmission)
Engine: 1.4-liter I4, 101 hp, 98 lb.-ft. of torque
EPA line: 30/38/33
Power-to-weight ratio: .43 hp per lb.
Length: 146.5 inches
Curb weight: 2,535 lbs. (w/manual transmission)
Engine: 1.6-liter I4, 121 hp, 114 lb.-ft. of torque
EPA line: 29/37/32
Power-to-weight ratio: .48 hp per lb.
Price tags aside, the two have relatively similar specs here, but I’m guessing that most drivers wouldn’t mind trading the Fiat’s mere 1 mpg advantage for the MINI’s 20 extra horses and 16 lb.-ft. of torque, not to mention the extra seven or so inches worth of car that come with the latter. And note that with both vehicles packing automatics—expected to be the transmission of choice for the majority of 500 buyers—the MINI actually outdoes the Fiat with EPA ratings of 28/36/31.
On the other hand, there’s plenty to be said for that $4,000+ pricing advantage, especially when it also buys a certain amount of Italian flair. So, the 500 should be an excellent alternative to the MINI for buyers focused on just these two vehicles. The only problem is, the Fiat 500 has a bit of a dual role to play for the Chrysler Group.
Not only is it supposed to be one of the automaker’s new halo products, but it’s also supposed to spend some time getting down and dirty with the mainstream small cars from other companies. Consider: While the other big players are either bringing out new subcompact and compact entries, or still reaping high volumes from older models, the only non-Jeep the Chrysler Group has in these segments right now is the forgettable Dodge Caliber.
The Caliber still attracts a few thousand customers a month, but it has the EPA ratings of a mid-size sedan (24 mpg city/32 mpg highway). That leaves the 500 as the only “really” fuel-efficient model in the Chrysler Group portfolio, a situation that won’t change for some time.
And what if the gas prices spike between now and the launch of a new, more traditional Chrysler small car? It wouldn’t take much based on the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Then, if that happens, automakers like Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda, VW and Hyundai all will be pushing cars that achieve at least 40 mpg highway and the Fiat will be stuck on 38 in a much smaller package. Compact cars that can hit the 40-mpg mark, like the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and next-gen Honda Civic, are all at least two full sizes up on the Fiat; in the case of the new Focus, that gives buyers more than 3.5 extra feet of car in addition to a fuel-efficiency advantage.
The latest subcompacts, like the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta and upcoming new Hyundai Accent, also will have size and mpg advantages over the Fiat, and almost certainly boast lower starting prices as well.
This also raises questions about Fiat’s powertrain technology. The Fiat 500 will be the first U.S. application of the automaker’s Multiair setup, which was designed to reduce pumping losses associated with internal combustion engines and thereby increase fuel economy. But looking at the numbers here, it just doesn’t seem to do so with the same efficiency as BMW’s similar Valvetronic system, used on the MINI. Now, I’m not ready yet to say the bragging behind Multiair is nothing but hot air—but it does make for a nice play on words to end the story.