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First Drive: Fiat 500

Good things do come in small packages.

by on Jan.28, 2011

The Fiat 500 finally arrives in the States.

Who says good things come in small packages?  Probably anyone who gets the chance to drive the new, U.S. version of the Fiat 500.

The Italian microcar has won a procession of awards back on the home continent, including the much-coveted World Car of the Year.  But the question is whether American motorists will give the U.S. version of the Fiat 500 a similarly warm reception.

This is a Costco nation that lives by the motto, “bigger is better,” and nowhere is that more apparent than in the automotive industry – though there are some telling hints of a shifting mindset.  While demand for the struggling Smart fortwo is rapidly drying up, that seems to be more the result of product flaws than an inherent market resistance to small cars.  The continuing success of the British-made Mini is certainly more compelling – at least for Fiat planners.

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Laura Soaves, who is overseeing the U.S. launch of the Fiat brand, projects that by 2014 small car sales in the U.S. will double, to nearly 1 million – a trend other experts echo.  Oh, and make that “re-launch” the Fiat brand, which poses a separate challenge.  The Italian maker abandoned the American market in haste, a quarter-century ago, driven out by quality problems that led to plunging sales.


First Drive: 2011 Mini Countryman Cooper S ALL4

Bigger, but still a Mini.

by on Jul.23, 2010

When does a Mini go maxi? The new 2011 Countryman still is a Mini, we found.

Small doesn’t sell – or so went the old automotive axiom. But these days, automotive marketers are singing a different tune. Small is beautiful, and there’s no better example than the Mini.

Since it made its U.S. debut in 2002, BMW’s British brand has handily outperformed expectations.  It’s also grown a bit, at least in terms of line-up, with additions like the Mini Open convertible.  But is a larger car still capable of being a Mini?  Or will the brand max out when the all-new 2011 Countryman rolls into showrooms?  That’s a question that sent us scurrying over to Hamburg, Germany to test drive the maker’s latest addition.

Based on an all-new platform, the 2011 Mini Countryman isn’t just larger, it’s also the British marque’s first four-door model.  And since we’re talking big changes here, the Countryman is also the brand’s first sport-utility vehicle.  No, it’s not about to take on the Jeep Wrangler to see which is more adept at handling rugged courses like the Rubicon Trail, but as we discovered during two days of driving, the new model is reasonably capable on gravel, dirt and deep ruts, especially if equipped with the new Mini ALL4 all-wheel-drive system.