Saturday focus: Wheels

Boxy, rusty, antiquated and unreliable.

To understand how Fiat engineers and designers feel when Americans talk about their cars this way in discussions of their proposed alliance with Chrysler, Detroiters should remember how they felt when members of Congress dismissed American vehicles as low-quality, unreliable gas guzzlers.

The vehicles Fiat produces today bear as much resemblance to the lousy cars that sent it slinking out of the country in the 1980s as the excellent 2009 Chevrolet Malibu does to a 1986 Chevy Chevette, which, you may recall, was an ugly little rustbox.

There’s no telling yet if Fiat’s alliance with Chrysler will pay off, but if you want to see what the Italian automaker has to offer, consider the Fiat 500, the award-winning little car that has become the company’s poster child.

The tiny 500 is a Mediterranean Mini Cooper, but 9.1 inches shorter. It offers charming style and advanced technology in a package that buyers across Europe have found irresistible since it debuted nearly two years ago.

Like the Mini Cooper, the 500 trades on heritage. The stylishly rounded 500 harks back to two previous models that built Fiat’s reputation.

The prewar 500, or Topolino, was so beloved that its nickname means “little mouse,” the same thing Italians called Mickey Mouse.

The postwar 500 was a simple and inexpensive car that put Italy on wheels in the same way the VW Beetle helped restart the German economy.

Fiat ended production of the 500 in 1975 before resurrecting it a couple of years ago.

Today’s 500 builds on their looks, but adds a beautifully trimmed interior and advanced features like Blue & Me.

As Ford did developing its trailblazing Sync feature, Fiat worked with Microsoft to provide a system that seamlessly integrates hands-free phones and iPods into the car, providing voice control and minimizing driver distraction.

It sold out in weeks after debuting, and it costs thousands of dollars less than a Mini Cooper that starts at $18,500.

The 500 is high on the list of cars Fiat would like to build in North America, and it’s one of the reasons Chrysler’s potential partner is worth a second look.

Detroit Free Press

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