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Fiat returns to U.S. after nearly thirty years with a fun city car: the Fiat 500

Posted Tuesday, September 27, 2011

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High-priced hybrid Lexus CT 200h tops tests of fuel-efficient cars; Chevrolet Volt has very low operating costs for short trips

Yonkers, NY — After Fiat’s being out of the U.S. car market for nearly 30 years, Consumer Reports’ tests of the Fiat 500 revealed it to be a fun-to-drive car in tests of fuel-efficient vehicles in the magazine’s October issue. Although it couldn’t avoid enough shortcomings to score high enough in the magazine’s tests to be Recommended, including a tight rear seat and cargo area, testers found it to be a likable urban car.

An inexpensive way to get a car with better fuel economy is to buy a very small car with a tiny engine, but that often brings with it some shortcomings. The Fiat 500, a retro-styled sporty car that competes with the Mini Cooper, is one example. The 500’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine helps it achieve an overall fuel economy of 33 mpg.

“The tiny Fiat 500 has agile, go-kart like handling, a rev-happy engine, and a crisp-shifting manual transmission that make it fun-to drive,” said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center in East Haddam, CT. “But slow acceleration, a choppy ride, and a noisy cabin are demerits.”

The issue also features a comprehensive Auto Test Extra road test of the Chevrolet Volt after seven months and three seasons of ownership. Fuel economy varies depending on weather and driving conditions, ranging from the equivalent of 99 mpg on electric power alone to a less impressive 29 mpg overall when running only on gasoline.

CR’s engineers found that the Volt is amazingly inexpensive to run on short trips, but when the gas engine kicks in and trips reach 70 miles, traditional hybrids catch up in running costs. While the innovative combination of a large battery, electric motor, and gasoline engine works well, the Volt suffers from some practical shortcomings.

The test group of fuel-efficient cars also featured the Lexus CT 200h hybrid hatchback, the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, and the Honda Civic Hybrid. The upscale CT 200h received the highest overall test score in this test group. The CT 200h hybrid gets an impressive 40 mpg overall in CR’s own fuel economy tests. But the car also had the highest price of the four vehicles in the test group. However, none of these vehicles were on par with the Toyota Prius, the most economical five-passenger car tested by CR that doesn't have to be plugged in. In CR’s tests it averaged 44 mpg overall.

The full report on fuel-efficient vehicles is available to subscribers of www.ConsumerReports.org on August 23rd, and in the October issue of Consumer Reports on newsstands September 6th. Updated daily, Consumer Reports.org is the go-to Website for the latest auto reviews, product news, blogs on breaking news and car buying information. Check out CR’s ongoing Twitter feed at @CRCars.

And, for the latest on the 2012 models, check out the story in the October issue of Consumer Reports, or pick up CR’s latest special interest publication titled, New Car Preview, on sale at bookstores August 30th. Information on upcoming 2012 models is also available online at: www.ConsumerReports.org/newcarpreview.

The Jetta TDI gets 34 mpg, which is much better than the 25 mpg recorded by the gas-powered five-cylinder Jetta SE in Consumer Reports’ tests. But diesel usually costs more than regular gas, eating into the cost savings. The Civic Hybrid gets much better fuel economy than its conventional counterpart (40 mpg overall compared with 30). But at $24,800, the Civic Hybrid costs about the same as a basic Prius, which gets better gas mileage and scored much higher in CR’s tests.

As the government recently pounded out an ambitious new fuel-economy standard of 54.5 mpg, proposed to kick in by 2025, automakers are working on the technology and design that will make that possible. The cars CR tested in this test group reflect some of the ways that manufacturer’s are stretching out gas mileage. The Lexus CT200h, Fiat 500, and Chevrolet Volt are new models. The Volkswagen Jetta was redesigned for 2011. Consumer Reports previously tested the five-cylinder gasoline Jetta sedan; this test is for the TDI diesel version. The Honda Civic was redesigned for 2012. CR previously tested the LX version; this test is for the hybrid.

None of the models tested in this month’s issue are Recommended. The CT 200h, Jetta TDI, and Volt are too new for Consumer Reports to have adequate reliability information. The Civic Hybrid and 500 scored too low in CR’s testing to be Recommended. Consumer Reports only Recommends vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on CR’s Annual Auto Survey of its more than seven million print and Web subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test.

Prices for the tested vehicles ranged from $18,600 for the 500 to $43,700 for the Chevy Volt.

A small-sized luxury car with fantastic fuel economy sounds like a great idea, but it’s a dream not fully realized with the CT 200h. Despite its impressive 40 mpg overall and some luxury appointments, nothing else is special about this least-expensive Lexus. Handling is responsive and secure, but acceleration is leisurely and the ride is stiff. The Lexus CT 200h Premium, ($32,012 MSRP as tested), is powered by a 134-hp, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gas engine that was quite sluggish and gets 40 mpg overall in CR’s own fuel economy tests. The continuously variable transmission shifts smoothly. Braking is Very Good. The interior is nice but more typical of a Toyota than a Lexus. The cargo area can hold just one suitcase and a duffel, but the split rear seatbacks fold down to make more space.

The new Jetta has a roomier backseat and a softer ride, but that’s where the improvements end. It rides well and absorbs bumps with good isolation, but too much road and wind noise seep in and the interior looks and feels cheap. Handling lacks the agility and precision of previous generations. The Volkswagen Jetta TDI, ($25,100 MSRP as tested), is powered by a 140-hp, 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine that provides adequate acceleration and 34 mpg overall. The six-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly. Braking is Very Good with shorter stopping distances than the previously-tested Jetta SE. The trunk is sizable, and cargo space expands by folding the 60/40 rear seatbacks.

The Honda Civic Hybrid gets impressive fuel economy at 40 mpg overall, but it has gone downhill overall, with sloppy handling, a choppy ride, long stopping distances, and a cheap-feeling interior. It suffers from pronounced road noise, which masks the relatively subdued engine and wind noise. The Honda Civic Hybrid, ($24,800 MSRP as tested), is powered by a 110-hp, 1.5-liter hybrid engine that accelerates adequately. The continuously variable transmission is very smooth and responsive. Cost cutting is apparent throughout the interior, with cheap, hard plastics. Unlike in other Civics, the back seat doesn’t fold, and the battery encroaches on cargo space.

The Fiat 500 is nimble and easy to park and seems like an ideal city car. But a noisy cabin, flawed driving position, and jumpy ride are drawbacks. The Fiat 500 Sport, ($18,600 MSRP as tested), is powered by a 101-hp, 1-4-liter four-cylinder engine that provides adequate acceleration and 33 mpg overall. The five-speed manual transmission’s gearing wrings out every drop of power on tap. Braking is Very Good. The tiny luggage area holds only one large suitcase, but you can fold the rear seatbacks to expand the cargo area.

The Volt is an electric car for drivers who don’t want to be limited by battery range. It will usually allow you to drive gas-free for 35 miles; that exact number depends on weather and driving style. Running the heater in cold weather significantly reduces electric range. When the battery is depleted, a gasoline engine will kick in to keep the electric motor running and allow you to keep driving for up to 315 more miles before refueling. The Chevrolet Volt, ($43,700 MSRP as tested), is powered by a 150-hp electric motor combined with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine. Fuel economy depends on how far you drive and how often you charge the battery. On electric power before the battery was depleted, the Volt averaged 2.9 miles per kWh for the first 35 miles. Counting overall energy used, that works out to a gas-mileage equivalent of 99 mpg. Fuel economy when running on gasoline alone is 29 mpg overall, on par with some typical gasoline-powered small sedans. The Volt has some practical shortcomings, including limited driver visibility and difficult-to-use touch sensitive controls, There are only seats for four; the battery pack takes up the space where a center rear seat would be.

With more than 7 million print and online subscribers, Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union, the world’s largest independent, not-for-profit, product-testing organization. It conducts the most comprehensive auto-test program of any U.S. publication or Website and owns and operates a 327-acre Auto Test Center in Connecticut. The organization’s auto experts have decades of experience in driving, testing, and reporting on cars. To subscribe, consumers can call 1-800-234-1645 or visit www.ConsumerReports.org

Consumer Reports has no commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor appearing on this newspaper's web site.

 
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Fiat returns to U.S. after nearly thirty years with a fun city car: the Fiat 500
Consumer Reports’ tests of the Fiat 500 revealed it to be a fun-to-drive car in tests of fuel-efficient vehicles in the magazine’s October 2011 issue.
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