by David Zatz
Fiat is setting itself apart, across the board, by emphasizing its small-car feel, with firm springs, good cornering, and all the fun parts of having a tiny little car. Let Nissan Versa serve those who get a small car to save money; Fiat and Mini are there for those who get a small car because they want something that’s fun.
The Fiat 500’s handling is go-kart good, while acceleration is adequate. The “raw” feel accentuates what you do have, which can make it more enjoyable than a real sports car, especially if you live in a place where you can’t just shove the pedal down and let ’er rip very often... or where, when you do, a patrolman or a deer might just be waiting around the next curve.
The 1957 Edition combines the high-frill content of the Lounge with a different look, using two retro paint colors (white is also available), beautiful brown leather seats, a white dashboard and roof, an overly tight suspension, and numerous little details. To get the cool look, you’ll also endure a lot of bumping and jiggling, which I suspect won’t do the car much good.
Our car came with frills like a navigation system, leather seats, thermostatic temperature control, extra chrome, and that most ill-fitting of small car options, the automatic transmission. A conventional automatic usually isn’t a terrific fit for a 1.4 liter engine, tending to sap both speed and economy (it does both, and adds lurchy shifting). We recommend the manual, even if you have to take lessons first.
Every American-sale Fiat 500 is powered by a little 1.4 liter engine with a MultiAir valve adjustment system that gives it more power at lower engine speeds; some have turbochargers, but not our test car. The engine is noisy when pushed, but that’s in character for a small, fun cars. Too much refinement brings boredom; with the Fiat 500, you can regain the experience you missed when you sold your Rabbit or Omni for something more adult or smoother.
There is no problem in keeping up with traffic or maintaining highway speeds, and highway passing is aided by quick downshifts, even if the engine doesn’t make much power at lower speeds. The transmission is tuned for sportiness, even in normal mode (there’s a Sport mode that holds gear longer, for a noisy and less-economical drive). On the highway, there were noticeable downshifts, but that’s par for the course, and not a terrible thing. The EPA estimates are probably optimistic, though, if you’re going to be staying with normal highway speeds.
The Fiat 500 is fun around city streets; the short wheelbase, low overhangs, and suspension give the feeling of speed and agility, while a low first gear gives quick launches. Again, not ladling on sound and shock insulation makes less acceleration feel like more, though there is good noise reduction from the outside. Know how some people brag they can do 90 without realizing it? Well, this is the opposite. You can do 35 while thinking you’re doing 50. Ask yourself which is safer, and more rewarding.
That’s not to dismiss the handling, which is quite good; our test car stuck to the pavement admirably well, and unlike our old Rabbit (no longer with us), stayed stuck their even when encountering water or dirt. I found myself taking turns much tighter than I needed to, because it’s so easy and fun, and the 500 never slipped up. It also takes freeway ramps far quicker than some “sporty” cars. I still personally prefer the standard “low-performance” suspension, which still has go-kart-like traction, but finds fewer bumps in the road.
Wind and road noise are not too bad at turnpike speeds, but concrete and other rough pavements come through clearly with the sport suspension on our 1957 Edition. The ordinary Lounge is more comfortable.
The six-speed automatic downshifts quickly, though not subtly, and was generally fast and responsive. Many cars with a small engine and automatic feel have a long delay between hitting the gas and feeling the result; not this one. The transmission was nearly always in the gear we would have selected, except in Sport mode, where it didn’t want to upshift. Some may find the lurches between gears to be annoying, others may like them, or not notice at all, but it is unusual to have such obvious shifts — and I say that despite having a 1974 car with a three-speed automatic.
There is also a manumatic feature: knock the gearshift off to the left, and you get up/down gear control. The control is the reverse of Chrysler standards — forwards drops a gear instead of adding one.
The automatic lowers gas mileage from 30/38 to 27/34 (EPA city and highway estimates), around 3-4 miles per gallon. (Our image shows even lower mileage — photo shoots involve a lot of stop and start.) We suspect typical drivers may see that 27 city, but not the 34 highway. It is a city car, though, and for most people, city mileage is more important. It is fairly easy to get good mileage given the car’s light weight, though if that’s your only goal, you can get a Toyota Prius-C for $22,000 which easily gets better mileage, at the expense of the fun factor.
The steering is mildly firm, while pressing the Sport button firms up the steering and changes the throttle curve and shift points. Taking the Fiat 500 over poor roads resulted in a lot of bouncing, and while it whipped enthusiastically around tight turns, the 500 tends to bounce and jiggle even on “smooth” roads. The tight suspension finds road imperfections you didn’t know were there before, though it is good at maintaining control regardless.
Inside, the Fiat 500 is a mix of old and new. Standard small car controls sat on the door. Three buttons intruded on the white dashboard — Sport mode, hazard flashers, and rear defroster. These buttons all look old-fashioned, and do not light up. They were a nice retro touch.
Underneath were climate controls which are actually easier to use without the automatic temperature control, since the latter uses buttons and the manual setup uses knobs. The oddly non-car-like temperature and fan buttons are easy enough to figure out, though not suited for major changes (e.g. moving the fan from min to max). The vent and options (a/c, defrost) buttons are large and easy to use with gloves; they don’t look as though they’re backlit, but they are. The fan is quiet, but the air conditioner is weak, presumably to avoid sapping engine power too much.
There’s no room for a bigger stereo, so the navigation system is distractingly set on top of the dashboard, in front of the driver. The TomTom docks but can be removed for firmware updates or replacement. The whole thing comes out of the dashboard with a pull, and a little cover pops up to protect the dock. It’s powered by the car; when not in use, it can be kept in the glove compartment. Not shown below is a display of the local speed limit, which appears on most streets alongside the car’s speed.
The TomTom had some features one would not expect, like warnings of red-light cameras, and a warning when you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, which we never did test.
Programming addresses was easy, though the system is a bit slow by modern standards. Don’t try to use it while driving — it’s a real test of coordination to hit the right button on the small screen without bouncing around. (The small screen is dealt with in a few ways, one of which is only showing the names of upcoming streets, as shown in the photo above.)
The Fiat 500 uses a single supergauge, now all digital, dropping the speedometer wrapped around the tachometer wrapped around a digital information center. This is actually a better setup, providing more visibility (among other things, the tachometer is accentuated by a red-hatched area under the current reading for easy tracking) under any kind of light.
The supergauge was always visible, even in harsh direct top-down sunlight. The nine-segment gas gauge and eight segment temperature gauge provides less information than an analog version (though, really, they provide enough); the 8,000 rpm maximum engine speed marking is foolish in a car that is will not pass 6,000 rpm. The odd 140 mph speedometer is gone, now, with a digital speed display that is easier to read.
The information center provides current temperature and the gear (gear number if you’re in manumatic mode), digital speed, and average speed, and average gas mileage; or you can switch the trip-computer stuff to whatever’s doing with the radio.
The interior is aesthetically pleasing, if odd. The use of black, white, and dark brown brightened and visually enlarged the cabin. There is plenty of fore/aft space for the driver and front passenger, if nobody is in the back, or if very small people are back there. It’s a tight, uncomfortable fit for four full sized adults. There are now two central armrests up front, and somehow it seems like it’s wider up there.
Headroom is more than enough for a six foot tall driver. The main problem in back, other than knee room, is the stylish but awkward headrest, uncomfortable for both kids and adults.
The Fiat 500 is exceedingly easy to park, with lots of space in every angle compared with a typical car.
The steering wheel is similar to the one used in new Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles, with the cruise control on the front, voice/phone control on the back.
The wiper control is set up the “upside down” Japanese way; for Americans, down is off and up is on. That matches the automatic shifter’s manual mode (drop a gear is up). It’s a bit confusing with both front and rear wipers and washers all on one stalk.
Cargo space is tight, but quite usable; the hatchback design makes it easier to fill the cargo bay, and the rear seats fold down individually for more space. We could put in a good number of grocery bags, and one large suitcase plus one overstuffed backpack, but you wouldn’t want to try to carry furniture or more than one large suitcase.
There is no spare (not even a compact spare); the 500 uses an inflator and sealant kit.
Visibility is not bad, with one blind spot covered by the split mirror on the driver’s side. The headlights are bright and well-focused, and Fiat uses amber turn signals, which are more effective than red ones; sidelights and front turn signals are separate units, so they are more visible. Sun visors are skimpy and don’t slide out or extend. The rear visibility was quite good and augmented in ou test car by a backup alarm, which beeped on “seeing” an obstacle when in reverse.
Other than not having a cushy ride, the Fiat 500 does have some drawbacks. It’s a two-door, and sliding the seats forward to let kids in is a pain.
The seat belt buzzer beeps loudly from the moment the ignition is on unless you put on your seat belt before turning the key, rather than waiting a moment. It would also be nice to have a way to use just the parking lights.
The Fiat 500 is still pretty lovable as a daily driver. It’s not a great family car, though my kids loved it for a week (13 and 19 years old), I don't think they'd feel quite the same way after a few years. The first time you take a turn without bothering to slow down or arc around, just swing the wheel and go at a 90° angle at 25 mph like a cartoon character, or race up to speed on a highway on-ramp, you’re likely to forgive all those flaws.
Probably due to the pistachio-green color of our car, or maybe its general appearance, we had problems with people simply not wanting to be passed, and other people swinging in and blocking our way. We noted excess road rage in some large pickup drivers, almost entirely black Fords, with tailgating, unrequited horn-honking, and illegal passing with plumes of black smoke. It may have been a coincidence, or a regional thing, but we don’t normally see it driving the same speeds on the same roads in other cars — even Fiat 500s without the 1957 package.
The “What if Microsoft designed a car?” joke, in radio form.
Blue & Me provides iPod/USB and cellphone support with voice commands; Ford also uses it, but is switching to QNX (which Chrysler uses). The system not only has most of the features of UConnect, but is now branded as UConnect.
Thanks to the Chrysler localization, you can change the volume and stations (or skip songs) from the steering wheel, and you change stations by pressing buttons — both handy given the poor ergonomics of the radio pushbuttons.
The system did not recognized a USB drive that we’d just used in a ProMaster City, but did recognize a nearly identical one we use in our own car. It also recognizes music players through their USB adapters. Supposedly the limit is 32 GB; both our drives were 64GB.
USB input is marred by the fact that the Fiat 500 provides no way to choose folders, artists, albums, or such; and by the fact that it defaults to the radio each time the engine is started, with a long delay before realizing a USB device was available. The volume difference between modes makes the problem worse (radio is louder).
An iPod Classic and Touch had similar results from the system; it only played music in order, not what you want from a 120 GB hard drive. Playlists are apparently recognized. The answer seems to be treating thumb drives like albums, and having a few of them on hand at any time, or playing in shuffle mode all the time.
You can, supposedly, control the system via voice prompts. You can't just tell it to list artists, you have to say “Media Player,” wait for the machine to reply, then say “Advanced USB Options,” (oh, yes, that’s intuitive), wait for the machine, then say “Artists,” then use the control to go up and down (or say Next and Previous and risk the machine not understanding you and ending the session.) We never did get this to work in our 2015 model, and the prompt repeated some options several times.
The audible help menus are completely useless, and some of the options are repeated when you say “Help.” The sound quality of our “premium” stereo was acceptable but not particularly good. The USB setup makes the first launch of healthcare.gov (or Clippy or any Windows wizard) look highly functional.
At the time of review, the 2015 Fiat 500 Lounge lists for $19,450, including destination. This includes seat-mounted and side-curtain front airbags, a knee airbag, front-seat reactive head restraints, alarm, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, tire pressure displays for each tire, Hill Start Assist, power locks, remote, cruise, and rear wiper/washer.
Inside, standard items include hands-free communication and streaming audio, the all-digital seven-inch gauge cluster, “premium” audio (with CD/MP3/satellite radio), USB and auxiliary inputs in the center console and a USB charger in the glove box, express power windows, electronic vehicle information center, filtered automatic air conditionining, tilt-wheel with audio controls, mechanical driver and passenger seat memory, driver’s side height adjuster, and 50/50 fold-down rear split seat. Outside, the car has 15 inch aluminum wheels with 185/55 tires, fog lamps, chrome power heated mirrors, and a chrome exhaust kit. The Lounge also includes a fixed moonroof.
Our test car had the 1957 Edition, as noted, which removed the moonroof but added nicely colored brown leather seats, retro badging, ivory door trim panels, a retuned suspension, 16-inch body-color wheels, two-tone paint with white roof and mirrors, and driver and passenger seatback pockets. The cost for this is $1,900, which seems a bit much for nicer coloring.
The Convenience Group added $700, for heated front seats, rear pask assist, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror — the latter, something I’d pay extra to get rid of. The six-speed automatic was a stunning $1,350. Finally, the navigation system was $600. With all options, our car ran to $24,000, jumping Dodge Dart and landing in Chrysler 200 turf.
Our Fiat 500 was made at a Chrysler plant in Mexico, on the same line as the much-larger Dodge Journey, using 19% US/Canadian parts (including the engine — and that’s up from 11% in 2011) and 42% Mexican parts (down from 59%). The warranty is good for a generous four years or 50,000 miles. Safety ratings are as one would expect for frontal crashes — four stars for the driver, three for the passenger. Side crash ratings are surprisingly high, five stars for front and rear seats alike. The greenhouse-gas rating was 7, the smog rating 5 (both are on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is best).
The Fiat 500 is a fun little car, and Fiat implemented high-trim-level features and options well, other than requiring buttons for the high end climate control and any radio.
It’s a tight little small car that increases drivers’ connections to the road (less so with the automatic).
The little Fiat is tempting for me, personally, as a commuter car, with the $200 a month lease. It has great gas mileage (city and highway), parkability, and fun, though on long highway trips, the fun of driving it can turn into work — it’s a great city car, not a highway cruiser. It works with the automatic, if you can live with lots of downshifting on the highway, and keeps its character, but you’re really better off with the stick.
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