Three decades ago, following years of owning and replacing one British Triumph roadster after another, I gave up on Mother England and purchased a used Fiat 124 Spider.

As a fanboy of British-built Austins, Jaguars, MGs and especially Triumphs, I had been unswervingly loyal to the Union Jack. But I’d gotten tired of constant mechanical and electrical problems and convertible tops that were about as effective as a balloon made of gauze.

So I gave up and bought a used Italian-made Fiat. It was a revelation.

It had real roll-up windows — not snap-on cloth side curtains like one of my Triumphs — and a manual convertible top that could be raised and lowered without getting out of the car.

It provided the same open-air driving enjoyment as my Triumph roadsters. But unlike its British counterparts, the Fiat didn’t deliver that wind-in-your-face experience when the top was up.

The Italian and British roadsters seemed to have comparable performance.

My Triumphs may have possessed a little more low-end oomph and been more fun to toss around than the Fiat, but the Spider had a smoother engine and more comfortable ride.

In short, the Fiat was a more refined and sophisticated than the comparably priced Triumphs I’d owned. I liked the 124 Spider until the day I replaced it with a pickup truck.

Not everyone was as impressed with Fiat’s products as I was, however. An onslaught of inexpensive and reliable cars from Japan ultimately forced Fiat to leave the American market 27 years ago. But now Fiat SpA, a Turin-based company that has undergone a financial and creative renaissance recently in its native Italy, is also staging a comeback in the U.S.

Fiat, which also owns 25 percent of Chrysler LLC, plans to open 122 showrooms – the company calls them “studios” – in the U.S. this year. The Quirk Auto Group will operate one of the studios, which is under construction at 4 Rand Road, Portland, next door to Quirk Chevrolet.

The new studio isn’t expected to open until June, according to Quirk General Manager Tim Reardon, but the company already has a few Fiat launch models on display and available for purchase.

The launch model is called the 500. It represents a reincarnation of Fiat’s classic Cinquecento and is intended to evoke memories of the tiny putt-putt that first hit Italian “strade” more than a half-century ago and has starred in countless foreign films (although, ironically, not in 1969’s “The Italian Job” or its 2003 remake).

The 500, introduced as a 2012 model, is aimed at competing in the U.S. against other retro models, such as the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen’s New Beetle.

According to Fiat literature, the 500 was “designed for sheer passion” and “to maintain its history of strong iconic style and celebrated spirit.” It also states: “Like the original Cinquecento… the new Fiat 500 is just as sleek, simple and stylish.”

I had an opportunity to put those claims to the test, thanks to a pre-production model provided by Quirk. A few days in the car convinced me that Fiat’s rebirth in the U.S. is a lot more realistic than some of the stunts its Cinquecento and other models performed in films.

If timing, as the cliché goes, is everything, then Fiat’s is impeccable. With fuel prices again climbing toward $4 a gallon, Americans seem primed to purchase smaller, more economical vehicles.

The 500 hits the bull’s-eye on all counts. It is 7 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower and weighs nearly 200 pounds less than the Mini Cooper. As maneuverable and easy to park as the Mini is, the Fiat feels like it can do U-turns in the same parking space.

Yet the 500 meets or beats the Cooper in nearly all the important interior dimensions, such as front and rear head-, leg-, and shoulder-room. It also has nearly twice as much cargo room behind its rear seats and 25 percent more room with the rear seatbacks folded flat.

The Fiat 500 also costs less than the Mini Cooper. The 500 will initially be available only as a two-door hatchback in three trim levels: Pop, Sport and Lounge. Starting MSRPs are $15,500, $17,500 and $19,500, respectively.

The Sport model I drove was comparably equipped to a Mini Cooper Base model, but its list price was $1,900 less. Standard equipment includes fog lights, projector beam headlights, rear spoiler, air conditioning, cruise control, heated and power-operated door mirrors, remote keyless entry, trip computer.

Also included in the base price are a Bose audio system with hands-free cellphone link, power windows, split folding rear seatbacks, leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear wiper and four-wheel antilock brakes.

Obviously, even at $17,500 the Fiat 500 Sport is well equipped, not stripped.

It’s also a blast to drive. Its short turning radius, responsive steering and sporty suspension make the 500 about as nimble and quick as any four-passenger vehicle on the road. According to magazine reviews, it clings to corners with the tenaciousness of a sports car.

All 500s are powered by a spunky 16-valve, 1.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. Fiat rates the engine output at 101 horsepower and 98 pounds-feet of torque, which looks rather uninspiring on paper.

The impression from behind the wheel is totally different. The engine’s eagerness, along with the 500’s light weight and slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission, provide more pop than I could have imagined.

If you’re willing to rev the engine to its 6,500-rpm horsepower peak, the 500 will reward you with spirited takeoffs. Highway passing power is also more than acceptable, providing you downshift first.

I didn’t drive a 500 with the available six-speed automatic transmission, so I can’t vouch for its peppiness. But according to Fiat, it delivers pretty good mileage: 27 city/34 highway mpg. The manual transmission model is significantly better, earning an EPA rating of 30 city/38 highway mpg.

Given its 10.5-gallon gas tank, that should mean only occasional trips to the filling station. Which is a good thing not only because of the price of gas, but also because of the attention attracted by the Fiat 500.

A lot of the attention was no doubt due to the 500’s rarity on our roads, but I couldn’t stop it anywhere without attracting someone who wanted a closer look. At the very least, the sharp and distinctive little 500 is a definite head-turner.

Whether it will capture hearts as easily as it grabs their attention remains to be scene. But if my stint with it is any indication, Americans seem to be as ready for the company’s North American revival as I was for my first Fiat.

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

[email protected]

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