2012 Fiat 500 Sport

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Seriously, does this look like a chick car to you?

Fiat’s brave new foray into our car market has been here just long enough now that everybody has seen one and formed an opinion.

Right, it’s tiny outside and surprisingly big inside, and it’s even easier to park than a Mini (visibility is better), and it zips around like an all-weather skateboard and seems to have been screwed together on a day when Italy’s labor unions were in a good mood. So here’s the real question: Is the Fiat 500 a chick car?

Sure, the Gucci version with the mother-of-pearl interior, the one that Jennifer Lopez emerges from on TV like Venus rising from her bath, is a chick car. A hyper-mega-über-chick car. The one in my driveway, though, is painted an unusual shade of bronze (one woman called it “rust”) and has a clutch and a five-speed manual gearbox. Glaringly obvious inside the racy little wheels are bright-red brake calipers that resemble the anchors on hot Porsches. There’s even a “Sport” button on the dash, which I reflexively push although it doesn’t seem to do anything. This little buzzer is pretty sporty with or without a button. People unfailingly notice the car—pulling away from an intersection with a raspy bark that sounds almost air-cooled, or hurtling past on the interstate at some godawful speed—and then they notice the silver-haired AARP member behind the wheel, and smile. Or snicker?

To help settle the question, I polled a dozen of my peers in the petrolhead media, promising anonymity. By and large, the answer was (paraphrasing here): “Of course it’s a chick car, you moron.” The youngest guy in the group, however—and remember, Fiat aimed the 500 at him—replied “No, I think it’s something more than that. Like what the Mini is. It’s too funky and cool.” (One of the other No votes came from a guy who qualified his response with, “But then I drove a Miata.”)

Virtually no one rates the Mini a chick car; virtually everyone thinks the New Beetle is a chick car. And I say this Fiat is a tougher call. First, it’s delightful to drive. Oops, “delightful” is kind of a chick word, isn’t it? And it comes from one of the most macho-yet-refined cultures on earth, Italy, and a company that also owns three ultimate “guy” brands, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati. It’s front-wheel-drive and agile, so six inches of wet snow didn’t pen it up, even on summer tires. The front seats are comfortable on a four-hour run, and the back seats are not. There’s room inside the hatch for groceries. There’s no bud vase.

Bumps throw the car around—it’s too small not to react—but this just makes us pay attention and really drive. So does the slightly lazy throttle and clutch, and the reactive steering. Pay attention! And when you do, fun happens! If driving means guiding your luxomobile between the white lines while you think about your next-quarter earnings, the Fiat 500 is not for you. Maybe it should be. Wake up!

Perhaps it’s appropriate for a marque that disappeared from America almost 30 years ago, but driving Fiat’s latest 500 puts me in mind of cars long gone. Specifically, Bill Hefner’s ice-blue Volkswagen Beetle. In 1967, when we were in high school, he let me drive it. It was awesome. Compared to my parents’ cars (a red Oldsmobile Rocket 88 station wagon with an automatic and a green-over-white Rambler American with three-on-the-tree), it skittered around like a water beetle and it could be driven flat-out without dire consequences. It showed me that driving could be rewarding, a sport, an end in itself. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

If this Fiat—incomparably more modern than that ancient vee-dub or Fiat’s old 500 from that era—has the same impact on some kid today, terrific. And if it’s a chick car, it’s for chicks I like. As for me, I want the hotted-up 160-horsepower Abarth model, in gleaming, wicked black. Welcome back to America, paisan.