by Michael Volkmann • special to allpar.com
When I was invited to Maxwell CJDR in Austin, Texas to drive a Fiat 500, I was very excited. Currently I own a 1995 Neon ACR and a 1995 Neon Sport, both two door coupes. I drive the ACR to work every single day, and up until this point, I have not found another small, front wheel drive car that is on par with my Neon in terms of driving dynamics. The Neon is just plain fun to drive. I have road raced, autocrossed, drag raced, and worked on Neons for the last 15 years. I have owned seven of them total. Needless to say, the Fiat 500 has some mighty big shoes to fill for me.
Lisa Copeland, General Manager at Fiat of Austin, introduced herself to me and then asked if I had seen the car since it was parked right outside. I replied, no, I had not seen the car yet. Puzzled, I walked back outside and realized that it was completely hidden behind a new Durango parked next to it. As I walked up, the realization of how small this car truly is hit me. It is small, but not small like a Smart TwoFour.
The Fiat 500 is much bigger inside than I expected. My "average," 5'-10", slightly overweight frame fit comfortably in the driver's seat. I did ratchet it all the way down (it is height adjustable) which located it about an inch and half lower than the passenger seat. The driver's seat has an armrest, but the passenger seat doesn't, which I did find a little odd. The bolsters were comfortable and supportive, but I did initially wish for a little more foam in seat bottom. It just seemed to flatten out after sitting in it a little while, and I got used to it. A wallet full of old receipts and business cards only made the matter worse.
This particular 500 was a Sport model with sunroof, and the Safety and Sound Package as its only options. The sticker showed a MSRP of $18,700.
The Sport package comes with convenience items like Blue & Me and steering wheel controls standard, and has a Bose Audio package. The stereo sounded good to me and Lisa claimed that she had been using the Blue and Me system to make phone calls and it worked very well. Unfortunately, I did not get to play with it.
The sunroof removes some headroom, which will not help people in the taller passenger seat who prefer to sit up more. There is plenty of headroom, but not as much as I expected. You can recline the seat to get more headroom, but that would not make back seat passengers very happy. Let's say I wouldn't order mine with a sunroof, but the built in sunshade worked really well when we had the sunroof open.
All of the important center stack controls like the window switches and A/C were easy to reach from the shifter. The A/C is very easy to control and the automatic climate system worked well. Push the buttons to change the target temperature and it increases the fan speed to help move air around faster. The A/C worked well for the front, but my cousin in the back seat said it was a little warm. We may not have had enough time to really let the car cool well, but at the same time it was only 65 degrees outside. It may have simply been me playing with it, or the fact that it was a black car that was sitting in the Texas sun before we received the keys.
Speaking of the back seat, my cousin said he was impressed with the width of the seat. There is certainly enough room to fit two average adults side by side in the back seat. Legroom is cramped, but livable for in town trips and running errands. In the driver's seat, legroom is relatively decent side to side. I was resting my right knee against the console area, but my left leg had plenty of room and I was able to easily rest my left foot next to the clutch pedal.
Visibility from the driver's seat is quite good. Looking at the passenger mirror, your peripheral vision can easily see out between the B and C pillar. I looked over at the driver's side mirror and noticed a built in blind spot mirror. Very cool, because the headrest and B pillar both block your peripheral vision when looking at the driver's side mirror. You cannot see any of the hood from the driver's seat. The location of the front bumper is also very much unknown at first. Honestly, there simply isn't much sheet metal in front of you so it is hardly uncomfortable not knowing exactly where the bumper was.
The little car is truly surprising. It drives amazingly well overall for such a little car with a little engine. Is the Fiat 500 as fast as a [manual transmission] Neon? No, but that is actually not a bad thing or unexpected. It can spin the tires and chirp second gear with the ESC on which is one of the things I love about playing around in a Neon. It is quieter than a Neon is on the inside with very little road and wind noise, but like the Neon, you can hear the engine rev which I really like. The shifter is a bit rubbery feeling, though not surprising as the Neon can also feel the same without aftermarket shifter bushings. Reverse is located in the same position as a Neon, but you have to pull up on a lockout ring to get into gear.
The steering has a very different initial feel, a bit light and disconnected at first. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad feeling, just wasn't what I was expecting having driven mainly 16:1 steering racks on Neon ACRs. For average drivers it probably wouldn't matter. The left front tire was a little low on air pressure, which certainly didn't help and made the car wander a bit.
All of that changed the second I hit the SPORT button on the dash. The difference is so noticeable that the backseat passenger actually said something about it. The car woke up and became instantly sharp feeling. It wasn't quite as sharp ACR steering but it wasn't the "turn the wheel and wait for something to happen" feeling I received trying to change lanes at first. Neons always felt light in the rear, especially the SRT-4. The Fiat 500 is much the same, even with a back seat passenger. I was sure this car could easily be brought up on three wheels when having some truly spirited fun with it just like a Neon.
In traffic I was completely comfortable with how the car accelerated from stoplights and how it cruised in traffic on a 60 mph parkway. There was no indication of bump steer and the car rode along smooth and comfortably. The overall suspension feel was like a Neon Sport or R/T.
Downshifting to pass is a little difficult. Beyond second gear, the little car is relatively flat. At 60 in fifth gear, a downshift to fourth will get you moving a little. Going to third makes a big difference, but you run out of breath fast and need to quickly up shift to fourth. The car really is geared with economy in mind past second gear. It is easier to just sit back and cruise than to try to dart around and chase the gears. Just sit back and enjoy the ride because it is worth it.
We stopped to get some drinks at a nearby gas station. Almost immediately we had several people walking around the car and asking to sit in it. When we were ready to leave I flicked the Volkswagen-style switchblade key out and started the car. I immediately hit the SPORT button and we were off and having fun again.
Surprised? Absolutely. The Fiat 500 Sport truly exceeded all of my expectations. Is it a Neon? Well, certainly not, but once you get past the initial shock over the size of the car, you realize how much it doesn't matter. Can the Fiat 500 replace my Neon as a fun daily driver? Yes, it really can. Do I recommend waiting for a potentially turbocharged Abarth version to come ashore? I have to say no you don't really have to unless you just have to have it. The 500 really is a fun little car just as it is. It is great for commuting and just cruising from Point A to B. It does everything very well and with plenty of style. It is an attention grabber for sure.
I enjoyed every minute of the hour I had in the Fiat 500 and I left the dealership truly... surprised. Now, when can I order and how do I make that SPORT button automatically stay on all the time?
Special thanks to Lisa Copeland at Fiat of Austin for giving me the opportunity drive the car before the dealership was officially open.
Fiat 500 info page • Allpar Staff's review of the Fiat 500 Sport • Fiat 500 Forum
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