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John Montgomery, President of Fiat Lancia Unlimited, recently took delivery of an exclusive, factory-numbered Fiat 500 which he ordered during last year’s Fiat FreakOut, the Fiat Lancia Unlimited car club’s national meet which was held at the Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina.

This is John’s 7th Fiat, hence he chose Prima Edizione production #77. One of the three unique colors, white was selected over brilliant red or metallic gray since white illustrates the lines better. The car has with big black side stripes, emblazoned with an unmistakable “500″ like the contrasting number found on an old fashioned black and white striped prison uniform. Kinda makes you wonder if John is slowly adjusting to “life on the automotive outside” since Fiats have been locked away from sales on our shores for nearly 30 years.

Isolated renegades hoped for Fiat’s return

Ironically, the Fiat Lancia Unlimited car club is 28 years old. They started as a renegade gang of enthusiasts who in the early days called themselves “Fiat Lancia Underground”, (FLU), aptly named since Fiat had just departed North America.

“FLU” endured almost three decades of obscurity and isolation after Fiat bid arrivederci here. “We are like the Nelson Mandela of car clubs,” John quips. Several hundred loyal enthusiasts hung on, imprisoned on the inside of the North American market while clinging to the faint hope that Fiat may return one day. In 1982 Fiat returned back to it’s European based roots to reinvent itself, building landmark cars like the Fiat Panda, Punto and Lancia Delita.

When Fiat patriarch Giovanni Agnelli passed away in 2003, a young Canadian accountant named Sergio Marchionne was appointed by the Agnelli family to manage what many thought would be it’s certain decline.

Fiat 500As Fiat’s near death experience played on in 2004, Sergio “the doctor” and his team went to work to engineer a dramatic turnaround that would once again put Fiat back in the driver’s seat of manufacturing dominance. Over the next decade, Ferrari won the lion’s share of F1 constructors titles, F1 team driver titles and World Rally championships, honing it’s technological skills that would eventually trickle down to the Fiat Group brands. The cars were getting much better and the Fiat Group once again grew strong as they honed their trade, not only with Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo, but through holdings like Iveco, New Holland Tractor, Case and Kobelco construction machinery and Teksid, the world’s largest engine block manufacturer.

All this technology trickles down to the core of every house brand, that’s why the new Fiat 500 is packed with dozens of high tech features that clearly point upstream into the Italian car food chain.

Will MINI’s Cooper continue to dominate?

Meanwhile, Mini Cooper spent the last decade blazing the trail in America and the world with a small car that is nimble, fast and fun not to mention capable of turning all heads on the street corner. Since then, most auto manufacturers have sought to find that same holy grail chemistry that made Mini king of the small car kingdom.

The 2 year old Chrysler/Fiat alliance is the key that has unlocked the door barring North American Fiat sales. Mini’s well worn path makes it easy for the Fiat 500 to breakout sporting a near 25% price advantage over the now ballooning Cooper. Montgomery is just one of the newly released North American Fiat enthusiast inmates that knows he’s got a car that’s fully capable of nipping at the heels of it’s BMW progenitor right out of the gate.

The little Fiat is still quite the renegade; not only European Car of the Year in 2008, it’s refined and updated for this market. Fiat finds itself again on these shores with a slick, high content package that’s so damn cute it spins heads like a top. Adding to 16 new Chrysler products in the last two years, Sergio is wasting no time rolling out the Fiat 500 variants. The 101 HP 500 entered in early 2011 with three models; Pop, Sport and Lounge, all featuring the patented multi-air valve train technology. Just a few months later the 500C Convertible was launched, making it the least expensive drop top on the market.

Abarth 500 vs. JCW MINI

Sergio ‘The Boss” Marchionne is not done yet by any means. The first prototype USA version Abarth 500 ultra pocket rocket will be ready for testing July 1st, 2011. Actual availability for the Abarth will be first quarter of 2012. A hell raising “A” segment car with 170 HP and a six speed box will surely put the Fiat mob into full lock down and certainly rattle the chains of posh and pampered Mini buyers. Take note BMW North America, that new JCW Mini better be good, because just released time hardened Fiat parolees…don’t take prisoners.

John compiled a catalog of talking points (written while serving time) detailing the virtues of owning a Fiat 500 when compared to the MINI Cooper. It’s quite a list that might change your mind if you’re thinking about buying a MINI Cooper.

Compare Fiat 500 and BMW Mini Cooper

• The Fiat 500 base price MSRP is $4600 less (-23%) than the base BMW Mini MSRP.

• Fiat 500 has a 5 star European NCAP rating for driver & passenger safety. Mini has a 4 star rating on driver & passenger safety.

• Fiat has better aerodynamic CD; Fiat: .35, base Mini: .37, Cooper S: .39

• Fiat base weight is 352 pounds less than the Mini’s base weight.

• Fiat’s maximum passenger/cargo capacity is 970 lbs., 154 lbs more than Mini’s 816 lbs.

• Fiat’s 34.8 ft. turning radius is 3 foot tighter than the Mini’s 38 ft.

• The Fiat’s ground clearance is 4.1 inches; the base Mini’s is 5.5″. The Fiat puts you 1.4″ closer to ground.

• Fiat has lower insurance rates than the Mini yet same warranty; 4 years, 50K miles.

• Fiat has 3 year 36K free maintenance, includes car rental and is transferable!

• Fiat has twice the percentage of USA/Canadian content & Fiat’s engine is made in Michigan. The Mini is 35% UK, 25% France.

• Fiat parts prices compare lower in price than BMW Mini parts.

Exterior & Interior Comparison:

• Fiat offers 14 exterior colors but only two are $500 extra. Mini offers 10 but 7 of them are $500 extra!

• The Fiat is taller overall with more upright seating position for better road view than the Mini.

2011 MINI Cooper

2011 MINI Cooper

• Fog lights on Fiat Sport & Lounge are standard. Fog lights for base Mini cost $250.

• The Fiat Lounge has fixed glass sunroof standard. Mini has no such thing.

• Fiat’s electric sunroof is an $850 option. The Mini sunroof option costs $1000.

• The Fiat has quieter DBA noise level at idle and at speed on the road.

• The Fiat has lower emissions than the Mini as well as lowest in class. Fiat leads Europe in low emission vehicles.

• The Fiat Bi-Halogen headlights use the very latest hi-tech bulbs.

• The Fiat has more percentage of space within the wheelbase devoted to passenger room.

• Fiat drivers fit up to the 90th percentile adult, up to 6′ 2″ without bumping headliner.

• Drivers up to 6’5″ fit well in the 500 without the sunroof option (which takes 2″ headroom.)

• Fiat rear seat passengers cover a 70th percentile, up to 5’9 without bumping liner.

• The Fiat has more rear seat leg room, Fiat 32.2″, Mini has 29.9″.

• The Fiat 500 has 6.5 cubic foot trunk space, more than the Mini’s 5.7 cu. ft.

• The Fiat has a longer luggage floor w/ seats upright, even though it’s shorter outside.

• The Fiat 500 has a longer luggage floor with the seats folded down too!

• The Fiat holds 30 cu. ft. of cargo w/ seats folded down; the base Mini only 24 cu. ft.

• The Fiat base front passenger seat has storage compartment under seat cushion. Mini does not.

• Fiat’s centralized pod instrument bezel is directly in front of the driver, not on Mini.

• Fiat drivers do not need to tilt their head to see the heater controls, only look down.

• The Fiat center armrest is standard; the Mini center armrest is a $250 option.

• Fiat offers heated seats & mirrors for less than Mini’s $750 cold weather combo package.

• Fiat includes a security system as standard, a $500 Mini option.

• Fiat “Blue & Me” interactive link has steering wheel controls & USB port. The system will read your text messages out loud.

• Fiat’s Blue & Me system is $400 option, a similar system (with Navigation) is a $1750 package on the Mini.

• The Fiat has “Eco-Drive”, a down load application to review driving habits and minimize your carbon footprint.

Performance & Safety Comparison:

• Fiat mileage is 30/38 MPG vs. Mini’s 28/37 MPG. New owners are reporting up to 45+ MPG.

• The power to weight ratio between base Fiat (101 HP) and base Mini (116 HP) is nearly identical.

• Fiat 500 runs on regular, all Minis require at least mid grade 91 octane!

• All Fiat models; Pop, Sport & Lounge all have a stainless steel exhaust system standard.

• The Fiat 6 speed automatic is $1000 option; Mini buyers pay $1250.

• The Fiat automatic transmission has a one touch shifter + or – and is only available on one Mini model.

• The Fiat “hill holder” keeps the manual car from rolling back (or forward too) when departing on hills.

• Fiat has traction control standard. It’s an option on base Mini for $250.

• Fiat’s “HBA” hydraulic braking control compensates panic stop pedal pressure, lowering actuation time for maximum braking.

• Fiat braking “EBD” reads actual wheel speed data for faster brake response times.

• Fiat “ESP” calculates wheel longitude and lateral grip, cutting in when slip is beyond parameters, adjusting throttle input and

opposite wheel brake bias. Fiat’s “ASR” reduces wheel slip at all speeds and adjusts torque for grip detected.

• Fiat 500 has 7 airbags standard while Mini has only 6. Fiat includes driver’s knee airbag.

• Fiat has double seatbelt pretensions to tighten in a crash event sequence. Mini has single belt pre-tensioners.

• The Fiat has a lower forward vision angle of 8%, Fiat driver sits more upright.

• All Fiat sheet metal is high tensile steel for safety w/ better visibility as the “A” pillars can then be thinner.

• Fiat front & rear seats have anti submarine devices to prevent sliding under belts.

• The Fiat has breakaway foot pedals in high impact frontal crashes to protect feet.

• The Fiat has soft energy impact hood area in case the car ever strikes a pedestrian.

• Fiat’s “FPS” (fire prevention switch) cuts off electric fuel pump in a crash, then Fiat automatically turns on the hazards, interior lights & unlocks doors.

• The Fiat’s interior trim is flame resistant. Mini does not use flame retardants.

Fiat Heritage:

Fiat, since 1899, is an independent manufacturer. Fiat owns Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, New Holland Tractors, Kobelco Construction Equipment, Magnetti Marelli and Teksid, the world’s largest engine foundry. Fiat SpA holds the record for most European Car of the Year Awards (Fiat 500 won in 2008), most World Rally Championships, most Formula One Championships.

Visit www.fiatusa.com or if you are interested in finding your ideal Fiat 500, John has started an online brokerage where he will do the leg work for you. You can find him at www.fiatofgreenville.com.

Visit www.autoanything.com for popular Fiat & Mini Cooper accessories like performance brakes, car covers, dash trim kits, steering wheel covers and heavy-duty floor mats.

Fiat 500

  • Gunter Karg

    Being from Europe, I have always likes how “fill throttle proof” a Fiat is. to my delight I saw 4 Fiat 500 cars on Interstate 15 heading into Las Vegas- what a sight. Yes they all had MI licence plates. Way to go, cute car get them coming.

    • http://twitter.com/ridestory ridestory

      Keep your eyes open for more, Gunter. I think we’ll see a lot more soon.

  • Steve A

    My 2006 Mini Cooper S has been virtually trouble free in the 60,000 miles I’ve had the pleasure of owning it. I seriously doubt the Cooper’s road handling performance can be equalled by this cute newbie.

    • http://twitter.com/ridestory ridestory

      Yes, advantage goes to the MINI. The brand is well established within its markets and has proven reliable. Being backed by BMW doesn’t hurt either.

  • Patricia

    Only thing that would not work in the city of New Orleans is that the Fiat is too low to the ground. We have constant flooding on a simple rainy day and the other it may be too light in weight for that size vehicle. I still would like to buy one but who would sell them here and most important who would service them? I love the Mini still BUT I find them to be VERY PRICEY! I’m in the market now for a vehicle so what are my options?

    • Patti

      …look at the Smart Car…see my post…

      • http://twitter.com/ridestory ridestory

        Can you post a link here to your post, Patti? I would love to check it out.

    • http://twitter.com/ridestory ridestory

      As I mentioned to Steve below, the MINI is well established as a great option for those shopping for something economical yet still fun to drive. The downside is definitely the price. MINI’s can get quite expensive. There’s so many options out there now that fit this mold. Look at and drive all of them. Take the time to check what the standard features are for the price. Then look at the options available. It’s definitely worth considering a car that provides more for your money.

  • Patti

    Iu00a0still wouldn’t give up my Smart Car.u00a0In the 3 years that I have had it, it has proved its performance, intelligent design, economy and fun.u00a0 I can’t recommend the Smart Car enough.u00a0 However,u00a0′she’ might like au00a0little ‘brother or sister’ Fiat 500!

    • http://twitter.com/ridestory ridestory

      The 500 might be a nice addition to our ‘family’. The Smart Car is perfect for urban commutes while the 500 may prove to be a better option for cross country trips. You’ll still get great gas mileage but have a little more room.

  • Patti

    I still wouldn’t give up my Smart Car. In the 3 years that I have had it, it has proved its performance, intelligent design, economy and fun.  I can’t recommend the Smart Car enough.  However, ‘she’ might like a little ‘brother or sister’ Fiat 500!

  • Craig D.

    All the highlights above notwithstanding, the original 500s were, well cute (I guess).u00a0 This incarnation is similar but loses that endearing quality, while Mini actually improved on their original design.u00a0 I may well have fit into both the Mini and 500 back when I was growing up in Munich in the early ’70s but if I had to squeeze my 6’4″ frame into either one now, it would definately be the Mini.u00a0 Better yet, once I got used to it, I slide into the Porsche just fine.

  • Craig D.

    All the highlights above notwithstanding, the original 500s were, well cute (I guess).  This incarnation is similar but loses that endearing quality, while Mini actually improved on their original design.  I may well have fit into both the Mini and 500 back when I was growing up in Munich in the early ’70s but if I had to squeeze my 6’4″ frame into either one now, it would definately be the Mini.  Better yet, once I got used to it, I slide into the Porsche just fine.

  • Ryanmaster1

    love the new abarth. hope the coupe sees the US soon

  • Ryanmaster1

    love the new abarth. hope the coupe sees the US soon

  • Steve Anson

    Having owned 2 MINIs: a 2006 Cooper S and my present 2011 Cooper, as cute as the Fiat is, it does not come close in fit and finish, could never match performance or have the same road worthy “gusto” of a MINI.