When I was 15 years old, I lived in Europe for a year. My proudest accomplishment was learning how to say "Mi piace la pizza con funghi," which means, "I like pizza with mushrooms" in Italian. This didn't bode well for my parents' plans for me, considering I was living in France to learn French. But alas, I was an Italophile, and that interest rolled over into my taste in cars. I ended up blowing all of my film taking pictures of "classy" cars I fantasized owning when I grew up to be a fancy adult. A majority of my photos were of -- employ heavy Italian accent here -- the Fiat Cinquecento. Why? Because it's so damn cute! It's scientifically proven that when you lay your eyes on a 1969 Fiat Cinquecento, you must emit a little breathy giggle. So test-driving the 2012 Fiat 500 was an automotive coming-of-age moment. Would it satiate my nostalgia?
While offering an update to the classic shape, the Fiat 500's design is also a flawless homage to the past. But while the 500 is cute as a button -- and achieving more than 30 miles per gallon, it's a perfect fit for the fuel-consumption-conscious customer -- the pickup is modest at best. You're not going to be cutting people off with a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. Then again, in a car that resembles a shiny dumpling, you won't have a lot of street cred to begin with. With only 101 horsepower, you shouldn't be buying this car for the power. After all, the Fiat 500 is the quintessential city car, originating in the 1950s as a cheap postwar solution to urban transport. You can park anywhere. Literally.
Normally I hate carting up the Hollywood Hills in anything bigger than my Mini because the streets are so mangled and tight -- it's like Europe but without the romance. But the Fiat takes all the angst out of the process. Big, fat SUVs and Mercedes sedans clumsily try to navigate the veins of the canyons, while the Fiat showcases its surprisingly forgiving suspension, tucking into corners with aplomb.
Despite the Fiat's minuscule size, its interior is spacious, albeit slightly reminiscent of a minivan. Its user-friendly ergonomics are a plus, and the liberal application of hard plastics is excused by the 500's optional two-tone leather seats and a Bose stereo system that turns this tiny tin machine into a four-wheeled boom box. Not bad for a chic ride with a $15,500 base price and a great sense of humor.
But make no mistake: There's little testosterone in both the design and specs of the Fiat 500. The only way a man could drive this car is in a Fellini film. That's not sexist; it's just not the '60s. This is a woman's car. Specifically, a woman like me. Fifteen years later, the allure holds up. Mi piace la Fiat Cinquecento.