SAN DIEGO – Here we go again.

In 1998, it was Volkswagen’s New Beetle, followed four years later by the Mini Cooper.

Both sparked fascination and expanded the definition of cool.

Enter the ’12 Fiat 500.

En route to North American showrooms from Chrysler’s assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico, it promises to reawaken our appetite for something unique and exuberant. But does it deliver?

Does Silvio Berlusconi like showgirls?

The A-segment hatchback raises the bar on style. And not just for small cars.

Fiat boosters liken its profile to the seductive shape of a wine bottle. That’s a modest assessment.

Think Chianti, rich with flavor and brimming with attitude.

A deep character line joins the 500’s taut rear and bold nose. It also accentuates the car’s impish outline by contrasting the car’s compact greenhouse with a wide-hipped lower body.

The effect suggests stability and sure-footedness, attributes reinforced by flared wheel arches.

And then there’s that face. Circular projector headlamps stare unblinkingly as they frame “whiskers and logo” badging and a strong-but-sensitive chin established by a honeycomb grille.

In a word: charming.

Factor in 14 available exterior colors enlivened by assorted graphics and wraps from Mopar and the 500 portends a fashion renaissance on America’s roadways. (Fiat forecasts “espresso” brown will dominate, but “mocha latte” better defines the sheet metal’s ins and outs.)

The view from behind the wheel is equally enchanting.

Furthering the 500’s potential for personalization, there are 14 possible color and fabric combinations for the car’s interior, anchored by a chic-ly styled dash available in two themes, black and a stunning ivory.

The sizable Fiat logo on the finger-friendly 3-spoke steering wheel invites emotional investment in the brand, but the horn lacks sass. It blares as if the car has a vinyl top with the word Brougham thereon. (A Fiat engineer promises to investigate.)

’12 Fiat 500
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-passenger hatchback
Engine 1.4L MultiAir SOHC I-4; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 101 hp at 6,500 rpm
Torque 98 lb.-ft. (133 Nm) at 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 72.0 x 84.0
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 91 ins. (230 cm)
Overall length 139.6 ins. (356 cm)
Overall width 64.1 ins. (163 cm)
Overall height 59.8 ins. (152 cm)
Curb weight 2,434-lb. (1,104-kg)
Base price $17,500-$21,300 (mid-range Sport trim)
Fuel economy 27/34 mpg (8.7-6.9 L/100 km)
Competition Mini Cooper, Toyota Yaris, Smart ForTwo, Scion iQ
Pros Cons
Seductive wine-bottle shape Size does matter
Stunning ivory interior Horn blows, sort of
Sport mode a blast Sloppy manual shifter

Fittingly, the instrument cluster is a dominant interior feature. The speedometer, tachometer and trip computer are cleverly displayed in concentric circles.

The driving experience would be better, especially on 500s equipped with manual transmissions, if Fiat made the tach more prominent, like Mini does.

But there is a more pressing issue.

Americans have grown one inch (2.5 cm) taller and some 25 lbs. (11.3 kg) heavier over two generations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So the key question is, can anyone comfortably fit in a car that could be the punch-line of a Ringling Bros. clown sketch?

You can pass the canolis because the short answer is, yes.

On this drive, the 500 accommodates with unexpected ease one six-footer and one aspiring six-footer, neither of whom could pass for Michelangelo’s David.

The car’s H-point requires predictable effort for ingress and egress. But once inside, the front-seat cushions and bolsters afford comfort and support associated with higher-end cars.

Likewise, thick door seals and extensive foam used in the flooring contribute to significant noise reduction that is especially welcome at highway speeds.

On the down side, the driver’s footwell is cramped and the rear seating positions – despite surprising leg room – suffer from the car’s sloping roofline.

The aft compartment functions better as a cargo area, anyway, even though the seat backs don’t create a perfectly flat load floor when down.

Among the truly delightful features of the 500 is its startling ability to haul itself around. The car’s 101-hp 1.4L naturally aspirated I-4, which generates peak torque of 98 lb.-ft. (133 Nm) at 4,000 rpm, provides ample energy. Hard throttle inputs are met with little resistance, considering the 500’s 2,434-lb. (1,104-kg) footprint.

Fiat’s trademark FIRE engine on the 500 employs as standard the auto maker’s celebrated MultiAir Fully Variable Valve Actuation technology, which helps the engine breathe easier while boosting fuel efficiency, power and refinement.

On this drive, observed fuel economy was in line with recent turns in the larger Ford Fiesta.

The 1.4L displays a lively character with either the 5-speed manual transmission or the new-for-North America 6-speed automatic from Aisin.

The automatic gearbox responds well to kick-downs on long straights and sweepers, but the manual – despite a disappointingly sloppy shifter – better delivers the kind of jump the 500 is meant to display on congested urban thoroughfares, its natural habitat.

For the full effect, pump Louis Prima through the available Bose sound system and activate sport mode. With the push of a dash-mounted button, the 500’s temperament changes noticeably.

The Nexteer-supplied electric power steering tightens and, with the 5-speed gearbox, the ratio of pedal travel to throttle response is fine-tuned. Automatics benefit from an altered shift schedule.

With its impressive powertrain, agile handling, bold interior colors and charming profile, the 500 will feed the buzz that surrounds it.

Like a bottle of Chianti.

emayne@wardsauto.com