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by David Zatz
This is the fourth Fiat 500 we've tested, so we could judge the car with different levels of equipment — Pop, Lounge, Sport (convertible coming next week). The Fiat 500 Lounge shows how creatively Fiat integrated high level trim into a small package.
The Fiat 500 has a classic 1970s-1980s small-car feel, with its firm springs and small but zippy engine, bringing the feeling that you should zip around turns and corners. While it doesn't compete with sports cars on actual cornering and acceleration, Fiat 500 gives a more raw feel which accentuates what you have. That can make it more fun than a real sports car in areas where you can't just shove the pedal down and let 'er rip very often.
What happens, though, when a buyer wants frills like a navigation system, leather seats, thermostatic temperature control, extra chrome, and such, along with that most ill-fitting of small car options, the automatic transmission? Then you get the Fiat Lounge (with automatic).
Every American-sale Fiat 500 is powered by a little 1.4 liter engine whose MultiAir valve adjustment system broadens its torque curve — that is, gives more power at lower engine speeds (Abarth models get a turbocharger, too). The engine is noisy when pushed, but that's "in character" for a small, fun cars. Not everyone wants their cars refined to the point of boredom, and with the Fiat 500, you can regain the whole small-car experience you missed when you sold your Rabbit or Omni.
The Fiat 500 gives a sporty experience around city streets despite its little engine; the extra short wheelbase, low overhangs, and sport suspension give the feeling of speed and agility. The lack of excessive sound and shock insulation makes less acceleration feel like more. The wind and road noise (the latter being noticeable on concrete) are fairly high at turnpike speeds. The Fiat 500 handles well, but objectively speaking, it's not really a sports car; the "unrefined" qualities make it feel faster both in acceleration and in cornering, so you can have a lot of fun without constantly coming up against your limits, or those of other drivers.
The Japanese six-speed automatic downshifts quickly and can speed acceleration for non-expert drivers, who otherwise might drop just one gear when two are called for; but as with any automatic connected to a small engine, it comes at the cost of acceleration and gas mileage. That said, the transmission was generally accurate and fast, with a responsive feel. While many cars with a small engine and automatic feel as though there's a rubber band somewhere in the drivetrain, with a long delay between hitting the gas and feeling the result, the Fiat 500 minimizes that effect (though one still feels it, to a degree). The transmission was nearly always in the gear we would have selected, and on highway hills, it downshifted to fifth to get some extra torque (indeed, it did this fairly often, but that doesn't seem to have hurt gas mileage).
Drivers who want more control, but want nothing to do with a clutch, can use the well-designed manumatic feature: knock the gearshift off to the left, and you get up/down gear control. Admittedly, the control is the reverse of Chrysler standards — forwards drops a gear instead of adding one — but it's there, and it works put-near instantly.
The automatic lowers gas mileage from 30/38 to 27/34 (EPA city and highway estimates), around 3-4 miles per gallon. Those figures are probably pretty accurate, perhaps a tad pessimistic. Careful drivers should be able to exceed them.
The steering is firm but clearly power assisted. Pressing the Sport button firms up the steering quite a bit, increasing the effort, and changing the throttle curve. Taking the Fiat 500 over poor roads resulted in a lot of bouncing, and while it whipped enthusiastically around tight turns, passengers were not as appreciative as the driver; the 500 tends to bounce and jiggle more, maintaining that small-car feel. It cushions large shocks well but might find road imperfections you didn't know were there before. The Lounge didn't seem to have all the lightness and confidence of the Sport, but it still felt good — again, for our small-car-minded drivers.
Inside, the Fiat 500 is a mix of old and new. Standard small car controls sat on the door. The black interior was relieved by a body-color dashboard panel, a trick first reborn, as I recall, by the Chrysler PT Cruiser, whose old factory now makes the Fiat 500. Three buttons intrude on the surface of this panel — Sport mode, hazard flashers, and rear defroster. These buttons all look old-fashioned, and do not light up.
The climate controls are nicely done with the automatic temperature control (thermostat); 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. Seat heater buttons are nearby, and work quickly. The fan is quiet even at high speeds, but the air conditioner is somewhat weak — with little engines, companies can either sap the power of the engine or sap the power of the compressor, and Fiat chose to sacrifice the compressor.
In the photo above, the most obvious feature is also the answer to the question, "How do you fit a navigation system into such a narrow car?" There's no room for a bigger stereo, and you can't reasonably make the climate controls much smaller, so the navigation system pops up. The setup is quite clever: there's a TomTom navigation device that's designed to dock with a removeable holder. Holding in two buttons pops the older open, so the TomTom can come out and dock with your laptop for updates, or be replaced with a newer model. The holder itself also comes out of the dashboard, and a little cover pops up to protect the dock. It's powered by the car and appears to connect up to an antenna within the car itself.
The TomTom integrated with the BlueTooth system, and had numerous settings and features, some of which you would not expect — like warnings of "safety cameras" (red-light cameras, among others) that can be configured with different sounds and warning times. A neat feature we wish everyone would get in our apparently-full-of-drunks town was a warning when you're driving on the wrong side of the road, which we never did test — we had it set up but failed to drive on the wrong side of a two-way street. We'll have to assume it works.
Programming addresses was easy, and the system is fairly responsive, both in time and in not needing a heavy touch. Don't try to use it while driving — quite aside from the obvious safety issues, it's almost a test of coordination to hit the right button on the small screen in a bouncy car. (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.) Our navigation system tended to have problems finding satellites.
The Fiat 500 uses a sort of supergauge, with the speedometer wrapped around the tachometer, which in turn is wrapped around a digital information center that always shows gas level and temperature. The supergauge was always visible, even in harsh direct top-down sunlight, but the digital section was far more brightly lit than the analog section. The nine-segment gas gauge and eight or nine segment temperature gauge provides less information than an analog version (though, really, it provides enough), and the 140 mph maximum speed and 8,000 rpm maximum engine speed markings are foolish in a car that is unlikely to go past 120 and certainly will not pass 7,000 rpm, with an electronically controlled redline.
The information center provides all the features of bigger cars, with current temperature and gear always showing (gear number if you're in manumatic mode), a digital speed reading, and two sets of trip computer figures — average speed, average gas mileage, elapsed time, elapsed distance. There are also instant economy and distance-to-empty readings.
Overall, the interior is aesthetically pleasing, if a bit odd in its ergonomics. The use of black, light brown, 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, and there's not much width. The Fiat 500 is exceedingly easy to park, with lots of space in every angle compared with a typical car, but two wide people in the front just don't really fit. That's why there's only one center armrest (for the driver), and, we finally figured out, why the seat controls are all inboard — it's how they fit everything in. There's less of an excuse for the stylish but awkward headrests in back, which were uncomfortable for both kids and adults.
Headroom is more than enough for a six foot tall driver, even with the seat ratcheted up via the slow, manual control. The driver's seat has an armrest on the right side, but the passenger seat doesn't, probably because there isn't enough room for both to use their armrests, and the driver needs to operate the brake and shifter as well. The Sport model's seats seemed, by far, the most comfortable, with the 500C less supportive and the Lounge far less supportive verging on uncomfortable — which is odd since one would think they'd all have the same frames. Our Sport was an early model and the seats might have changed, or perhaps the leather is the problem.
The steering wheel is similar to the one used in new Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles, with leather-wrapped surfaces and the cruise control on one side, voice/phone control on the other. It has a good feel, and the audio controls on the back are handy, especially given the deficit of controls on the head unit itself.
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).
The massive sunroof was an interesting addition; quite large even by normal-size car standards, it did not have the usual solid sliding sunblocker, but relied on a mesh screen which could be unhooked and slid back into the roof. The sunroof had two positions, the usual ajar and fully open; it had an express-open feature as well. A windblocker went up automatically when the sunroof opened, making it easier to travel at normal speeds without excessive wind buffeting. To avoid taking away headroom, the sunroof slides up on top of the roof itself, rather than going into it.
Cargo space is tighter, but not insane; there is no spare (not even a compact spare), and we found out why when we transported a 14" Valiant wheel-and-tire to our friends at Team THOTC, having to put down the rear seats to do it. It won't surprise anyone to find out that Fiat 500 doesn't compete against, say, Dodge Journey for cargo space; but the hatchback design makes it easier to fill the cargo bay, and the rear seats fold down (50/50) 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.
Visibility is average, with one blind spot covered by the split mirror on the driver's side. The headlights are bright and well-focused; Fiat uses amber turn signals, which are more effective than red ones; and sidelights and front turn signals are separate units, so they are more visible, especially at night. Sun visors are skimpy and don't slide out or extend. On our car, the rear visibility was countered somewhat by a backup alarm, which beeped on "seeing" an obstacle when in reverse. Sometimes, it seemed oversensitive, but that's better than missing objects which might really be there.
Other than not having a cushy ride, the Fiat 500 does have some drawbacks. Some are the nature of the beast; the Fiat 500 is a two-door, and sliding the seats forward to let kids in is a pain. The driver's side seat usually seemed to get right back to the correct spot, but the passenger seat had no mechanical "memory" at all. Because it is a two-door, you need some real flexibility to reach the front seat belts (which do not adjust up or down). 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. The headlight switch has no position for parking lights; and, well, we have a whole separate section for "Blue & Me." One wishes Chrysler had done more interior work.
These are a lot of complaints about what is basically a fun little car that's pretty lovable as a daily driver. It's not a great family car, though my kids loved it for a week (10 and 16 years old), I don't think they'd feel quite the same way after a few years. Tfirst 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.
Did you ever see the email about "What if Microsoft designed a car?" Now it's available in radio form.
Blue & Me is the system which provides iPod/USB and cellphone support with voice commands, just like Chrysler's UConnect; Ford also uses it. The system includes a facility for making phone calls with voice dialing.
The controls are what you'd expect from a non-automotive company whose work on human interfaces has been mixed at best. You can change the volume and stations (or skip songs) from the steering wheel, if the engine is running; but there are no knobs on the stereo, and you change stations by pressing left and right buttons (up and down buttons are for choosing a genre, except in iPod mode).
The system recognized the music on a USB drive but didn't let us choose folders (not finding folders, artists, etc.), and played the songs in order, sometimes not even acknowledging that there was a USB drive attached (as it played music from it). Plugging in an iPod Classic was similar, but, again, it only played music in order, not necessarily what you want from a 120 GB hard drive. An iPod Touch brought better results, but again folders, artists, and albums were ignored, and it would only play on shuffle mode.
You can control the system via voice prompts, but when the voice is prompting you, you have to wait for it to finish (sometimes pressing the voice button worked). 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," then 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.) It makes Windows 1.0 look like a highly polished effort, and makes one almost long for the responsiveness of Clippy.
The maximum for USB devices is 32 GB, according to the manual, which also said that it does not support DRM (it did work with our recent iTunes purchases but not our older, DRM-laden ones; Apple does let you update older purchases for around 30 cents each). Folders are not available for "most" iPods.
The multimedia instructions on the included DVD were vague at best and devoid of hyperlinks, referring you to other sections without making it clear how to get there, and showing videos that provided no more information than the text. The stereo section refers to "booting the main Media Player menu." Do they mean turning the radio on? If not, what do they mean?
The sound, which is probably the most important thing, was less than stellar; it did some music well, especially at high volumes, but generally was disappointing, even for a small, inexpensive car.
The base price for the Fiat 500 Lounge (the top level, other than Abarth and Convertible) is $20,200, including destination — which is $1,500 more than the midlevel Fiat 500 Sport, and identical to the price of the 500C (convertible). Standard safety features on Lounge include reactive head restraints (up front), side curtain airbags for both rows, a knee airbag, stability control, Hill Start Assistance, four wheel antilock disk airbags, tire pressure monitor, power heated mirrors, fog lamps, projector headlamps, rear defroster and wiper/washer, and variable wipers.
Convenience features include remote entry, alarm, SentryKey, tinted windows, cruise, filtered air conditioner with thermostatic control, height-adjustable driver's seat, storage under the passenger seat, seatback pockets, express-down windows, six-Bose-speaker CD with input jack and USB port, hands-free communication, leather wrapped tilt steering wheel with audio controls, information center, and front floor mats. The Lounge comes with 15-inch nine-spoke painted aluminum wheels, 185/55 tires, more chrome (including an exhaust tip), a fixed glass roof. Instead of a spare tire, buyers get a tire repair kit with an inflater and flat-fixer goo.
Our test car had four options, one of which outweighed the rest: the leather package at $1,500, which added to the leather coverings heated front seats, rear parking assistance, and auto-dimming rearview mirror. The six speed automatic was a no-charge addition. A power sunroof added $850, a navigation system added $400, and premium wheels, still 15 inches, added $300. The total, then, came to $23,250.
Our Fiat 500 was made in Mexico, at a Chrysler plant, using 11% US/Canadian parts (including the engine) and 59% Mexican parts. The warranty is good for a generous four years or 50,000 miles.
A "mild turbo" version is expected within a year, at least on the hatchback versions; said to produce around 130 horsepower, this would be a middle ground between the hot Fiat 500 Abarth and the standard editions, providing more pep without requiring all-out traction measures. The formula worked well on the PT Cruiser, allowing buyers to step up from the base models without going all the way to the somewhat punishing GT.
The Fiat 500 is a fun little car, but the hard leather seats of the Lounge seem like a major step down from the Sport we tested. We like the way Fiat implemented high-trim-level features and options, and the little car, which has won numerous accolades in Europe, remains unusual in the United States despite an increasingly crowded segment. 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.
Fiat 500 info page • Michael Volkmann's Fiat 500 review • Fiat 500 Forum
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