The Fiat 500 is one of the most internationally well known and well loved small cars of all time. And (like the new MINI) it’s been reborn. Also like the MINI, Frank Stephenson was personally involved in the project before leaving to head Alfa Romeo design. And the results speak for themselves. Rarely have we seen such style and substance in a small car not named “MINI”. Mr. Stephenson and his team have done a commendable job re-creating the magic of the original 500 while making car truly modern.

One of our favorite publications, Car Magazine, spent some time with the 500 in Italy on the recent press launch and has rave reviews to report. They also spent quite a bit of time comparing it to the new MINI. It’s an highly recommended article that is only fully available at bookstores. For those in the US, look for it at B&N and Borders in a few weeks time. In the mean time, here are a few excerpts:

>The little Fiat lacks the throttle eagerness of a MINI and the steering doesn’t have the MINI’s kart-like hyperactivity. The MINI, at least in Cooper guise, has the genes of a hot hatch. This is intentional; the original MINI was a rally and race winner. The new 500 has no sporting pretense. Its performance is more leisurely than the equivalent MINI’s. Yet it’s brisk and, more importantly, on the move it makes you smile.

>Yes it lacks the MINI’s terrier-like willingness; it rolls a bit more and the steering is less sharp. But it is still extraordinarily agile, feels solid and strong (like the superb Panda) and rides well. Whizzing energetically around Fiat’s Balocco test circuit, between Turin and Milan, the handling is beautifully neutral and controlled.

>We might at this stage ponder why the most appealing (if not necessarily most capable) small cars in the world – first MINI and now 500 – are spiritually and stylistically based on old timers. Why can’t the car industry conceive such an irresistible small car from scratch rather than borrowing from the past? After all, the iPod’s style is not based on the Wurlitzer jukebox or an old B&O gramophone – it is totally 21st Century.

>We can question. But does it matter? The two most attractive small cars of all time (some pedigree!) are now available new again and they’re better than ever. Instead of cynicism and doubt – ‘our modern crown of thorns,’ warned TE Lawrence – we should celebrate and enjoy an irresistible new baby car.

It would seem the stars have aligned for the 500 with the resurgence of Fiat and the new premium small car market the MINI helped establish. While it doesn’t have the MINI’s focus on go-kart like handling and quick acceleration, it promises to be a fun drive nonetheless. We can’t wait to try one ourselves.

You can read an abridged version below:

[ Fiat 500: First Drive ] Car Magazine

Also in the same edition of Car is an article about Frank Stephenson and his rise through the ranks of BMW and eventually to Ferrari, Fiat and now Alfa. Another reason to seek out Car’s August issue. Here’s a quick excerpt:

>The MINI works because it looks great and is fun to drive but it also has real substance. The 500 will be the same.