Let’s get this out of the way up front. The Fiat 500 Sport does not compare favorably to the MINI Cooper in ways an enthusiast would appreciate. The steering is light and the clutch lighter. The manual transmission is vague at best and any propulsion out of the highly acclaimed 101 hp Multi-air Fiat 1.4L four cylinder feels like a happy coincidence. Within a half block behind the wheel of the 500 I was in ‘leisure’ mode whether I liked it or not. Yet it didn’t take long to really come to appreciate the meandering quality of the performance and the confident (and unfortunately cheap) ambiance of the Italian style inside and out.

But let’s not lose focus on what this car is. Clearly Fiat isn’t trying to out-do the MINI in terms of driving dynamics. Instead it’s focused on bringing costs down to deliver a stylish small car at an affordable price. Case in point the Fiat 500 Sport we tested came to $19,500 with Rosso Brilliante exterior paint, sunroof and the safety and convenience package. It’s a pretty impressive value proposition when you consider a standard Cooper with no options in the US can’t be had under $20k these days. And the Fiat 500 Sport comes with eight airbags, a better than good Bose Stereo and the cutest little red painted brake calipers I’ve ever seen.

Yet the Fiat feels a little lower rent than the MINI the second you open the door.

As much as the 500’s interior has been praised, it doesn’t take long to see where Fiat saved money. From the doors to the dash the 500’s interior is swathed in hard plastic of a variety that even the first generation new MINI (R50/R53) never had. The door pulls feel flimsy (not unlike the MINI) and the radio and climate controls are feeble attempts at interface design. Nevertheless it’s still a stylish interior. And for a car starting at $15K it’s hard to be too overly critical.

One area it compares well to the MINI is in interior space. With the space from the bulkhead to the bumper so short, Fiat has maximized the cabin and trunk space in a shape that is six inches shorter than the MINI. And putting numbers aside, the interior feels as big and (shockingly) the trunk seems even bigger.

Outside Fiat nailed the styling. It’s almost impossibly cute and blew away the MINI in heads turned in downtown Chicago. Probably the only thing that would get more attention from the stylish women of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood would be a shirtless Bradley Cooper, puppy in tow. Like the MINI eight years ago, you don’t buy a 500 to go unnoticed.

Electronically the 500 is much less sophisticated than the MINI. Gone is the three stage traction and stability control of the MINI and in its place a simpler stability control system that does a decent job of being transparent. Although it’s not hard with only 101 hp and 98 ft lbs of torque on tap.

Like the MINI the 500 also has a sport button that adds weight to the steering and a slightly more aggressive throttle mapping. But the key word in that is slight as in you barely feel the difference.

This feeling of being a generation behind MINI’s electro gadgetry carries on inside with the iPod connection. It relies on a system similar to MINI’s from the R50 or early R56 models that include a USB port in the glovebox and rudimentary controls within the radio interface.

But if we’re going to compare the 500 to the MINI we eventually have to get to the driving part. And that’s where it all falls apart right? We’ve already said that it’s controls are sub-par and the feel and feedback most of us love in the MINI is mostly absent here. But the 500 manages to get past this and deliver an experience that is very different than the MINI but successful in its own right.

There’s an ease to the driving experience of the 500 that one could call comfortable. The suspension is more compliant and the steering ratio slower but much lighter. The body’s motion is generally well controlled and the Sport feels appropriately damped but no more. Even the driving position and seats (more aptly called chairs) emphasize the comfortable driving experience as you sit more on than in them.

The fact that the little 500 actually feels neutral (when pushed) before the inevitable understeer will go unnoticed by 99% of those who drive it. Instead they’ll appreciate the soft and leisurely attitude of the stylish little Italian car they just put in their driveway.

Yet as a MINI driver, it’s hard to get into a 500 and feel dynamically satisfied. My very first reaction to driving the Fiat 500 was disbelief. I simply couldn’t believe how poorly executed the driving experience was as compared to the MINI. The clutch and transmission were sloppy, the steering exceedingly artificially boosted and the power simply non-existent.

How (outside of Italy) could Fiat expect to find a real audience for a car that was so decidedly less compelling to drive than the MINI? The answer lies in the styling, price and a well-excited meandering driving experience. Taken together the 500 could be precisely what many Americans new to small cars are looking for. Inexpensive style and a driving experience that blends into the background.

In those respects the 500 is a lot of car for the money. More importantly, that’s a hell of a lot of style for the money. However to us it’s not in the same league as even a standard $20,000 Cooper because at $4,500 less cost, it feels like about $7,000 less car.

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