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by David Zatz
The Fiat 500, perhaps the quintessential small car, has attracted a lot of accolades from people who hate small cars, and for good reason. One of those is the excellent front seats; those on the Sport model were easily better than those of any car or truck we've driven since the Chrysler 300M. They accommodate people who normally find big cars necessary, with plenty of room all around — in the front, anyway.
The extra-firm suspension that transmits every imperfection, the firm steering, the manual transmission, and the loud little high-revvin' engine all combine to make driving much more exciting, even when you're really not going very fast. That's a real attraction, especially as cars strive for ever-more refinement, so that you have to chase that old "acceleration high" with more and more power — and you simply can't use it that often on public roads near population centers. We've had the Challenger SRT8 snap our heads back, we've had the Corvette Z06 whip us around turns and push us into our seats, we've had the Charger SRT8 AWD do both at once. They were thrilling when they had open space to work in, but the Fiat 500 lets you have a sporty experience around city streets. Not only that, but you can get 30 mpg while you do it.
The extra short wheelbase, low overhangs, and sport suspension give the feeling you're driving a go-kart. The manual transmission keeps you connected to the engine and the road, and the lack of excessive sound and shock insulation makes less acceleration feel like more. Not that the car is slow, because it isn't, but it feels faster than it is. Zipping onto the highway feels a lot quicker than in some luxury sports cars that can do 0-60 in 3/4 the time.
The clutch took me some getting used to, but that says more about me than the car; it's higher than I'm used to, but easy enough to engage properly. The Hill Start control was very helpful, keeping the brakes locked until the clutch bit in, so I didn't roll on hills while getting used to the clutch. With Hill Start, the stick is easier to learn than ever, taking away an excuse from those who drive automatics because they never learned otherwise. With a small car like this — rather, with a small engine like this — the manual transmission is especially important, both for controlling what gear you're in (which has a huge effect on acceleration) and for removing waste from the powertrain, waste which is easier to conceal when you have lots of excess power.
The shifter itself moved smoothly and engaged nicely, providing a good tactile feel while not being hesitant about, say, going into third, as some shifters are. Reverse is set off all the way to the right, and uses a lockout ring to make sure you really want to go backwards and aren't, say, trying to get into sixth gear.
The steering starts out firm but clearly power assisted — more power assisted than older small cars, less so than most current big cars. Pressing the Sport button firms up the steering quite a bit, sharpening it up and increasing the effort. The Fiat 500 had amazing traction as I took sharper turns at higher speeds, always feeling confident and light on its feet, taking more than most drivers will dare to give it. It seemed like all you need to do is wrench the wheel and the Fiat would follow without complaint.
The little 1.4 engine was remarkably strong in lower gears and at higher rpms, acceleration well from a stop; at speed, drivers may need to downshift to get passing power, unless they normally drive around at 3,000 rpm. Torque steer was nonexistent, as one might have guessed from the engine power. While at 55 mph, fifth gear was gutless, a quick downshift solved that; and going to third gear pushed the engine up to 4,000 rpm or so, at which point it's a pocket rocket. At 65, the engine is rotating at around 2,800 rpm, right in the torque range, so if you're just a little patient, you can stay in fifth all day long. Gradability is surprisingly good; I took a long hill with a bag of gravel in the trunk and a/c on, and the Fiat barely slowed. Having four people in the car (three adults, one kid) and the same bag of gravel seemed to have no effect on acceleration, uphill or not. That MultiAir seems to really spread the torque out through the operating range.
The Fiat 500 is a speed racer around town; on the highway, it's neither a Viper nor a slouch. Highway acceleration is more than adequate, but not thrilling, and the engine doesn't really get the responsive feel unless you're running past 4,000 rpm. You can pass, but it won't be instant. If you're at 55, dropping down to third will get you going quickly; doing down to fourth, is good enough most of the time.
Using a manual helps in awareness of the power band; below 2,500 rpm there's not much going on, and the faster you rev, the more you get — power, noise, fuel burning. At around 6,600 rpm the fun runs out, but fortunately the cutoff isn't the sharp "wham!" style, it lets you stay right at redline while making it clear that you shouldn't be there. That gives you time to upshift but doesn't punish you for hitting the barrier.
Outside, the styling is unique, with vintage cues all over — vintage cues of a car which never was available in any reasonable numbers in North America, and which most people have only seen, if at all, in the animated movie Cars, alongside a bunch of Mopars and token players from other companies. People stopped to look at the car as it sat in my driveway, when I drove by, and when I stopped. High schoolers stood puzzled, then started talking about J.Lo (who was in a recent commercial), which apparently made it OK and not just weird. Three men stopped their cars and got out to look at it; one took photos with his cellphone. At least now, while it's still pretty rare, the Fiat 500 makes an impression. The bright yellow paint on our test car probably helped, but so did the retro cues: round headlights, separate round sidelights, amber turn signals in back, and the odd fascia up front.
Inside, the Fiat 500 is a mix of old and new. Standard small car controls sat on the door above brown perforated leather, the same natural-looking dark brown used on the seats — surrounded by black plastic. The black interior was relieved by a body-color yellow dashboard panel stretching the length of the car, and brightening it up considerably — 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 control section is completely modern, and match the economy-car price of the 500: neither the fan speed nor the heat knob are backlit at all. However, they are as functional and easy to use as any, including the "press to get a/c" fan switch. The vents (four of them) all have individual on/off knobs, and the usual vertical and lateral movements. There are enough vents to blow a lot of air relatively quietly.
The window up/down controls are centrally located by the gearshift, surrounded by chrome rings, as is the gearshift glove; the shifter itself is chromed, with a clear white-on-black legend on top. Overall, the interior is surprisingly pleasing, aesthetically speaking.
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 Fiat 500 feels large inside, at least from the front seats; large people seem to have no problem with it, and 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. Bolsters held the front occupants in place around sharp turns. The sunroof has no opaque cover, but uses a netting to deal with harsh sunlight; the sunroof itself slides up and over to sit atop the roof itself, reducing the amount of interior space it takes up.
Wind noise was fairly high, though still good for the class. Those who are cross-shopping a Fiat 500 against a more expensive car should note that the 500 puts its money into driving dynamics more than sound insulation. Still, those seats are a good tradeoff. Would you rather have a quiet, uncomfortable car or a moderately loud, comfortable one? Make no mistake, though, if you're still hanging onto your Neon (or a similar car from over a decade ago), the Fiat 500 will be quieter on the highway; times have changed, and standards of wind noise have risen quite dramatically.
More to the point, the engine noise is quite high, and that's a good thing. Remember back at the beginning of this review, if your memory goes back that far, when we called the Fiat 500 the quintessential small car? Well, if you drove an Omni or Rabbit back in the days, you'll recall that they had cornering that made the rear drivers seem like ponderous dinos — and that includes the 1976 Camaro which, at the time, I was rather impressed by. The price you paid was a stiff ride that transmitted a lot of jiggles and bumps to your seat, and a loud interior. My 1979 Rabbit, in particular, seemed to have absolutely no sound insulation, and darned little dampening — but man, it made mincemeat of my V8 Camaro on any sort of curvy road, and did 0-50 quicker, too. (After that, the Camaro ran away unquestioned, but most of the time, 0-50 sufficed in my suburban world.)
Those little cars got great gas mileage — I never dropped below 30 mpg in my Rabbit, or got much higher, for that matter, because the lack of an overdrive brought highway mileage down to match the city mileage. A lot of that was their light weight, though aerodynamics played a role, too. Some of it was the technology — while my rear drive cars all had carburetors, and my later Sundances had a single injector, the Rabbit had multiple fuel injection (but, oddly, no electronic ignition, seven years after Chrysler started making it a standard feature). But more than that, they always felt fast. Sprinting from 0-60 in my Rabbit, which I strongly suspect took over ten seconds, felt far quicker than 0-60 in my Camaro, or Valiant 318, or Neon, all of which were probably much quicker. What's more, all of them felt faster than the Lexus LS I test-drove, which was far, far faster than any of them, doing 0-60 in well under six seconds compared with the Neon's 8 and the Camaro and Valiant's... well, I don't know, but I'm guessing over ten. (I apologize for the "probablys.")
Which brings us back to the Fiat 500.
The Fiat 500, like the Rabbit, has a tiny little engine, displacing a mere 1.4 liters, but it's hopped up with impressive technologies to pump out over 100 horsepower — which is nothing for a big car but isn't bad for a little car, especially since the MultiAir system widens the torque curve, so that you have power available over a wider range of the engine's operation. That, in essence, squeezes much more out of the little engine in actual driving.
Gas mileage is rated by the EPA at 30 city, 38 highway (almost the same as the 1995 Neon, but with tougher measuring standards). My guess is that, depending on how you drive, you might see less, but you'll never get as low as EPA ratings for a typical midsize or compact car. In reasonably enthusiastic suburban driving, I ranged from 28 to 34 mpg on various trips, as measured by the trip computer. I didn't clock highway trips separately but expect it to be close to EPA figures, unless you tend to go over 65, in which case I'd assume your mileage would fall down to 37 or so.
Because it's stiffly sprung and has little sound insulation, you feel and hear much more of what the engine is doing. The impression of speed is far higher than in a "regular" car, including most current sports cars. This is one reason why a lot of the old sports cars, which have pathetic performance compared to current models, have such a following: you can really feel what you're doing. Yes, in a Lexus GS you can beat most of the muscle cars — but it doesn't feel fast. You don't get any visceral satisfaction from it. The tactile impressions are too well cushioned. The Fiat 500 feels more connected, more sporty. It can be thrilling at much lower speeds than more "refined" sport-luxury cars, which makes it safer in a way: you can have a great time without pushing your limits too far, and, more to the point, without risking collision with less skilled, less predictable drivers.
The Fiat 500 is lovable because of its very harshness — the feel of the road, moderately cushioned (with really bad potholes and such well filtered, but the ride remaining very busy). I enjoy the well-footed feeling, the sure stability, around turns and at speed — where the Neon could be a bit floaty when subjected to cross-winds. The stick-shift greatly aids in the experience, to the point where I again say, as I said with the Neon and Wrangler, that you should learn to drive a stick rather than ordering the Fiat with an automatic. The engine is at that sweet spot between "not powerful enough to be fun" and "you have to know what you're doing or you're toast." It's also torquey enough to avoid those embarrassing "oops, I can't make it up this hill" moments and to allow you to carry a full load without noticing it.
The back seats are wide enough, with legroom, depending on the people up front, varying from tight to very tight. You can fit kids back there easily enough, and adults will fit if everyone doesn't mind squeezing for a bit. The width isn't the issue, largely because it's designed for two people, not three. Height might be; I'm five foot eleven and my head hit the roof. The back seats are, as you might expect, far less supportive and satisfactory than the excellent front seats, but they're better than many cars' back seats.
Cargo space is not as tight as one might think, thanks to the efficient hatchback design, and it's extremely easy to get to; the rear seats fold down (50/50) for more space. We could put in a good number of grocery bags, three suitcases, or, as we did to help weight the car down and see if the engine had any real torque, a bag or two of gravel. As it happens, yes, the engine has lots of real torque, for the weight of the car.
Visibility is a mixed bag; the driver's side mirror has a little blind-spot inset, but the rear pillar is, as usual, far too thick for good visibility on the other side (compensated for by big mirrors). The halogen headlights are bright and well-focused, and fog lamps are standard on the Sport. The rear uses amber turn signals, which are far more effective than the red variety; and there are separately sidelights, which makes them more visible and therefore safer. The sun visors are skimpy and don't slide out or extend at all, and squeaked when put back into place.
Other than not having a cushy ride, the Fiat 500 does have some drawbacks. Some are the nature of the beat; the Fiat 500 is a two-door, and sliding the seats forward to let kids in is a pain. That's one reason why people stopped buying two-door cars in the first place. The driver's side seat always seemed to get right back to the correct spot, but the passenger seat could wind up anywhere. What's more, because it is a two-door, you need some real flexibility to reach the front seat belts (which, incidentally, do not adjust up or down). I'm not as flexible as I could be, and I've wrenched my back doing this too many times. Not helping is the seat belt buzzer, which beeps loudly (and uncontrollably) from the moment the ignition is on. Eventually, I'd probably be able to change my habits to buckle first and then turn the key.
Then there was the lighting; Chrysler has gotten good with lighting, so it's a shame this Fiat has so many issues around it. The headlight switch has no position for parking lights, which is a shame, because there are times when headlights aren't really called for, but you still want to be a bit more visible or illuminate the dashboard. The digital trip computer/status display/gas and temperature gauge area is far too bright compared with the speedometer/tachometer, a problem Chrysler resolved years ago; it just about drowns out the speedometer. Finally, neither the fan nor the vent control have any backlighting at all.
Going down the list, there's also the odd door locks, which took a look through the manual to find; you push the regular door handles in to lock, pull to unlock. The optional sunroof is large and doesn't intrude into the cabin, but the only cover is a mesh screen (which is either fully open or closed), so it can get hotter inside the car; and the air conditioning, while it doesn't significantly cut into engine power, also isn't as powerful as it could be.
Oddly, the wiper switch is "upside down:" as with Japanese cars, for the wipers, up means off and down means on (though on the vents, up means off). The alarm fob lock and unlock buttons are reversed from Chrysler standards, a minor nuisance, and the key fob itself is labeled in a "black on black" fashion that you just have to learn to use.
These are a lot of complaints about what is basically a fine car. It's not a great family car, though my kids loved it for a week (10 and 15 years old), I don't think they'd feel quite the same way after five years. The ride is firm to the point of being harsh and there are numerous little drawbacks and places where they saved money. But 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 do as I did, and forgive all those flaws. Still, I'm thinking the upcoming Dodge PF (Hornet?) might combine some of the things I like about the bigger Chryslers with some of the things I like about the little Fiat.
Blue & Me, a Microsoft-sourced system, provides an iPod/USB connector and cellphone voice support, just like Chrysler's UConnect but presumably with more royalties and fewer development costs (not that Chrysler had a choice — for Mercedes it was presumably "no royalties and no development costs"). It seems to work fine for phone calls.
The sound wasn't my problem, though it seemed there was some music it worked well with, and other music it didn't; perhaps more trained ears could figure out the issue, but I think it was basic clarity at normal volumes. At higher volumes, it seemed to work very well, and the sound could be downright excellent; at lower volumes, it lost much of its charm. Satellite radio had good reception, without dropouts.
The main issue was the awful controls. You can control the volume and change stations from the steering wheel, as long as the engine is running; but there are no knobs on the stereo at all, and you change stations by pressing left and right buttons — up and down buttons are for choosing a genre (except apparently in iPod mode). Volume was on the left side of a seven button cluster.
We tried using a USB thumb drive; it recognized the music but didn't let us choose folders (not finding folders, artists, or any other information), and simply 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 brought similar results, except that the radio didn't turn itself on at random intervals; it only played music in order. An iPod Touch brought far better results, but again folders, artists, and albums were ignored, there was no way to navigate, and it would only play on shuffle mode. Then I found out that you had to control it via voice prompts to access artists, albums, etc. 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 (as you can with UConnect), you have to say Media Player, wait for the machine, 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.)
As a side note, the maximum for USB devices is 32 GB, according to the manual, which also claims it does not support DRM; it did work with our recent iTunes purchases. Folders are not available for "most" iPods.
Hey, what if Microsoft designed a car stereo? It would cost more to develop and do far less than the Chrysler car stereo, and have really arcane controls, and make you work its way rather than figure out what you want and do it. Is there a joke in there somewhere? (And wasn't IBM, not Microsoft, called "Big Blue"?)
This is all unfortunate because the optional Bose stereo has excellent sound once you get it working properly and crank the volume. It has different bass and treble settings for media, which makes sense. When we put in our usual test tunes, which get terribly muddled on inferior stereos, it sounded phenomenal, with the sound way up. At lower volumes, it loses clarity and distinction, but it can sound great when you crank it.
Hopefully, in time, the Fiat 500 will switch over to the Alpine stereos that work so well for Chrysler (which also uses Mitsubishi) — and will switch over to UConnect instead of the Blue & Me system. Or, perhaps, Microsoft will copy some of the good parts of competing systems. I think they've done something like that once or twice in the past.
The multimedia instructions on the included DVD were, by the way, vague and often confusing, and completely devoid of hyperlinks, referring you to other sections without making it clear how to get there, and showing videos of simple things that provide no more information than the text did. The stereo is in a different section from the rest of the guide, and refers to "booting the main Media Player menu." Do they mean turning the radio on? If not, what do they mean?
The base price for the Fiat 500 Sport is an astonishingly reasonable $18,000, including destination.
For that price, you get front, front-seat, driver's knee, and side-curtain airbags; four-wheel antilock disc brakes; stability control; power windows and locks; cruise; remote; hill start assist; rear defogger, wipers, and washer; sport suspension; filtered air conditioning; manually height-adjusted driver's seat; Bose stereo with voice command, cell phone control, and USB and auxiliary ports; leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt and audio controls; trip computer; front floor mats; and chrome shifter. On the outside, the Fiat 500 Sport comes with fog lamps, body-color power heated mirrors, 195/45R16 tires; chrome exhaust tip; red calipers; and rear spoiler.
That is one well equipped car for the price, but there are other options. Our test vehicle came with satellite radio and a security alarm for $350, and a power sunroof for $850. The brown and gray "sport cloth" seats, which were indistinguishable from a good perforated leather, came with the package.
The Fiat Pop is the base model; it comes with a/c, power windows and locks, heated mirrors, leather-wrapped steering, CD stereo, hands-free communication, USB and MP3 interface, seven airbags, trip computer, and stability control, for $16,000 including destination. Now that is a good price — $6,000 less than the cheapest Mini.
The Lounge runs to $20,000 even, and includes a six-speed automatic, automatic climate control, fixed glass roof, 15-inch alloy wheels, Bose satellite radio, alarm, and fog lamps.
While the Fiat 500 had not been tested by the NHTSA at the time of this review, the IIHS (insurance industry testing) put it into their highest category, Top Safety Pick. The car had, at the time, 11% U.S. and Canadian parts, with 59% coming from Mexico and the transmission coming from Italy. Later Fiat 500s will use engines made at Chrysler's highly rated engine plant, GEMA, which recently started production of the little 1.4s along with the World Gas Engines. The warranty is good for three years or 36,000 miles, with free maintenance.
The Fiat 500 is a fascinating vehicle almost unique in the United States. Its closest relative, the BMW Mini (also a retro car) has a cult following for much the same reason people are attracted to the Fiat 500: it's a tight little small car in a time when everyone else seems to be biggering and refining. The classic styling seems to strike a chord as well, just as that of the Challenger has. The Fiat is cheaper than the Mini, by at least $2,000, and it's more "genuine," since the Mini is a German car that apes a classic British car, while the Fiat 500, admittedly built by Chrysler, was and is a Fiat design.
The little Fiat is a ton of fun, and I'd have one right now if I still commuted to work. As it is, I'm seriously considering it. I can see having a minivan for family trips and hauling stuff, with a Fiat for the everyday trips and long solitary drives. It's really hard to argue with the gas mileage or the fun.
Fiat 500 info page • Michael Volkmann's Fiat 500 review • Fiat 500 Forum
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