The 2012 Fiat 500 is like the Mini or Volkswagen New Beetle, a modern recreation of a classic. It was introduced in Italy four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 0.5-liter original. Half a million Fiat 500s have been sold in Europe already, spurred by 60 international awards, including European Car of the Year in 2008. Now, as a Chrysler product, the Fiat 500 is being made in Mexico for the North American market.
The 500 is affectionately known by insiders who can pronounce it as the Cinquecento, or “chin-kway-chento.” Out of the box, it's a contender for fun-to-drive champ, as a four-seat A-class commuter car. We found it to be more fun than its competition, including Mini, Fit, Fiesta, Yaris, and Mazda2.
The Fiat 500 is about 6 inches shorter than a Mini, costs about $4000 less while including Bluetooth, and offers safety with a 5-star crash rating, sporty performance, fuel economy, technology, cool style and good looks. It features seven airbags, a new 1.4-liter engine with something called MultiAir cylinder head technology, state-of-the-art BLUE&ME hands-free technology and a Bose sound system standard in two of the three models, and a great 5-speed gearbox or optional 6-speed manual automatic transmission that's also fun.
There are three models, although versions would be a better word than models, because they're so different, in a slight but meaningful way.
The Sport really means it. If you want a totally cool sports car that gets 34 mpg and can move four young people around, the Fiat 500 Sport is for you. The ride is firm, brakes are amazing, steering is quick and gearbox terrific, so use it all or live with it. The seats are terrific and the special Sport interior is attractive.
The Pop is that rare if not unique model, both the lowest cost and most all-around practical. For $2000 less than the Sport, the Fiat 500 Pop is less aggressive with a better ride. But the extra equipment in the Sport is a great $2000 value, so you're a winner either way, as long as you know what you want. You can also get the automatic transmission in the Pop, for $1000. You lose some Italian flavor with the automatic, but not having to constantly work your left leg in the city, or freeway traffic jams, is a relief.
The Lounge is for those who want their Cinquecento to feel more like a real car, with the automatic transmission, softened ride and steering, added chrome, more amenities, and optional leather.
With the Sport, you get a lot for the $2000 higher price versus the Pop. With the Lounge, at $3000 more than the automatic Pop, you don't get so much. You get to feel like your Fiat 500 is the luxury version. All three models are named well. It would be best to take a test ride of all three before you buy, to feel the differences. Which might not be possible for a while, as Chrysler dealerships have to ramp up to sell the Fiat 500. Production began in March 2011.
If ever a picture of a car were worth a thousand words, the Fiat 500 is it. Take a good look, and you'll have a feeling of your own and won't need our words. But you have to look closer to see the distinctions in the models, which are worth pointing out.
The Fiat 500 is the epitome of tidy. Granted, it's easier to be tidy when there's less to deal with, and the Fiat is so small there isn't much. But the Sport, especially, is perfect. There's a chrome strip on the nose like a pencil-thin moustache, that the Cinquecento's designer added just because without it, he said, the car's styling was too perfect. Rarely does any manufacturer understand what clean really means, but Italians do. For that reason alone we need them back in North America, to be a good influence.
The face of the Fiat 500, with round halogen projector headlamps and parking lights, combines the family resemblance of other Fiat models sold in Italy, with a modern interpretation of the original Cinquecento, imported to the U.S. as a 600cc model back in the 1960s. No one in North America remembers, of course; but no matter. It's a winning European design that's been brought to the U.S. after four years.
Simplicity and strength are conveyed, especially on the Sport with its unique fascia, thanks to very short overhangs and muscular fenders, with the front fascia tapering outward to large wheel arches. On the Sport, the best looking model, there's a horizontal cooling duct of black mesh that adds racy character, while the lower mesh grille integrates foglamps. The liftgate spoiler is a must.
The distinctiveness of the Fiat 500's shape appears from the profile view, more than front or rear. The black window outline on the Sport enhances the good looks of the all-business roofline, while the chrome on the Lounge, especially those chrome mirrors and door handles, detracts from it. The Sport also has rocker-panel cladding that isn't bad, as rocker-panel cladding goes.
The rear view is stylized by a chrome license-plate brow, common in cars today, but true to the original Cinquecento that was inspired by a bicycle seat, believe it or not. The healthy rear taillamps are located between the edges of the liftgate and follow the door's vertical cutline. For a contemporary look, the rear glass spans the width of the liftgate and meets cleanly at the pillar. The Lounge has a chrome rear bumper that adds a touch from the '50s.
Also, we might add that the coefficient of drag is 0.35, which is darn good for a little box of a car.
The original 500 had a canvas roof that's legendary, and today's 500 features an optional dark glass roof that copies the style. The optional sunroof is available as fixed or powered.
There are five separate wheel designs of 15 or 16 inches, with at least three of them good-looking and eye-catching, and 14 vivid colors to choose from. Try Nero (black), Rosso (red), Bianco (white), Azzurro (blue), Grigio (gray), Argento (silver), Giallo (yellow), Verde Chiaro (light green), Rame (copper), Verde Oliva (olive green), Rosso Brillante (tri-coat pearl red), Bianco Perla (pearl white), and Mocha Latte and Espresso, which apparently need no translation from Italian.
If the exterior is the epitome of tidy, the interior is the epitome of neat. As Roberto Giolito, the head of Fiat Style says, it delivers absolutely everything that is required and nothing more. Unlike, say, the too-cute Mini and too-boring Yaris.
The Fiat 500 instrument panel gives the Fiat the visual feel of a sports car, except for its one flaw: the tachometer is combined with the speedometer, and this takes some fun out of driving and shifting through the gears, in particular with the Sport, because it ought to have a tach of its own. The tachometer ring is inside the speedo ring, and almost all of the space inside the ring is taken up by LCD information. So all that's left is the tip of a tach needle moving around a chrome ring against small white numbers that are hard to read, especially past 6000 where the numbers are red. And the stub of the speedometer needle, with all its numbers to 140 mph, moves around outside that. It's almost as confusing to the eye as it is to the brain to read about here.
Also, if the Fiat were as simple as they say it is, the radio would have a dial to tune stations, and not a button that you have to hold your finger on and take your eye off the road to watch the digital number tick along.
Everything else is real good, especially the metal instrument panel painted the same color as the car. And the seats, all four upholsteries, are really great. Standard cloth, premium cloth, sport cloth. It may be referred to as cloth, but it doesn't look like cloth. They're all different fabrics, all satisfying, as much like leather as cloth can feel. There's also optional premium leather, but the other seats are so sharp that leather isn't missed. And the fit is just right, although other reviews have complained that there's not enough bolstering in the Sport seats.
The top of the dash is vinyl and its design as simple as it gets: it's just there, and doesn't try to be anything, like for example the new Focus that tries to be a cockpit surrounding the driver. There are good armrests for both of the driver's elbows when holding the perfectly sized leather-wrapped steering wheel at 9 and 3 o'clock. The Sport shift knob is about as big and round and chrome as you can get away with. Doors cleverly lock with an inward push of the handles. And it's a little car with big long deep door pockets, how about that.
The steering wheel tilts to adjust, and there's all the legroom in front that you need, although the driver's right knee nestles against the console. Still, one 6-foot, 6-inch driver said he fit okay in the 500. The climate and audio systems and vents are in the center over the console, but it's not exactly a center stack, it's less than that, while still being complete. The shift lever, whether manual stick or autostick, rises from the bottom of the dash, a forward place where it's a more natural reach.
Legroom in the rear is 31.7 inches, obviously not much; we barely squeezed our briefcase behind the driver's seat. However, with the front seats slid forward, the rear legroom is not half-bad; but that's because the rear seat is a bench, so passengers sit upright. Fiat says it's roomy for two adults, and we wonder what species they mean, certainly not two adult humans. Young people running around town might not mind the squeeze, nor the climb into or out of the rear seat. With the rear seats up, you might be able to get two carry-on bags in the back. Drop the seats and it's a little hatchback with lots of room to throw small stuff in, through the liftgate.
The glass roof in the Lounge not only makes the interior feel more airy, it raises the ceiling, over the headliner or optional sunroof. There are three cupholders in front and two in back, and the glovebox is ample. Navigation is optional by TomTom, and handsfree communication, standard on Sport and Lounge, is by Blue&Me.
The three Fiat 500 models, Sport, Pop, Lounge, are quite different in the way they drive. Same power, but different brakes, handling and transmissions.
Let's start with the Sport, which is truly sporty, with a firm ride, thanks to stiffer springs and shock tuning, firmer brakes, and quicker steering. It all adds up to a wonderfully responsive car, although the ride isn't as relaxing as the Pop or Lounge, especially over bumpy roads or in the city. But if play is what you like, you'll have a blast in the Sport.
The 5-speed gearbox is a joy to shift, with a throw that's short, quick and secure. Its linkage is by a cable, a method that generally is less sharp, but in the Sport's case, we felt no loss. We banged shifts left and right, even hard downshifts into first, and the gearbox loved it as much as we did. The forward lever location is ergonomically natural, and that adds to the neatness of it all. The clutch is light. We never missed, never fumbled, and always got the heel-and-toe, as well. It doesn't often happen that nicely, out of the box. It's that Italian touch.
The Sport's red brake calipers can be seen through the 16-inch wheels in a color called Carbide and make a statement that's backed up by braking performance. Stopping in the Sport is significantly more responsive than in the Pop and Lounge, which is good when you're driving in a sporty manner, but it requires a soft touch around town. The Pop and Lounge do that soft touch for you. With 10.1-inch front and 9.4-inch rear rotors, and so little weight to bring down, getting stopped in time is never a worry.
The 6-speed manual automatic transmission is available even on the Sport, and it too is a transmission you can play with (although we think if you're going for a Sport in the first place, go all the way). The lever location is the same in the automatic as it is in the manual (although the knob isn't), so it feels like a stick shift. The Lounge comes standard with the automatic, and the Pop works well with it, as a compromise. There's a sport mode for the automatic transmission that sharpens and delays the shifts nicely, without too much override, so you'll still have a sporty little car, with the manual automatic Chrysler the Autostick. As they have the right to do, having invented sequential manual shifting of the automatic transmission in 1995, with the Dodge Stratus.
In the Lounge, the first thing you notice is how much looser and easier the steering is, then the same with the ride, and the brakes. In the city, this is good. The more relaxed steering makes the whole car feel a bit bigger, but the fixed glass roof in the Lounge has something to do with that, too.
The 1.4-liter engine is the same on all models. It features a reinvention of the cylinder head that's called MultiAir technology, to get 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque. MultiAir is a complex system that drives the intake valves by oil pressure actuators, triggered by electronic control: it's truly continuously variable valve timing. One big downside is that premium fuel is recommended, although not required, but we still wonder: how much power is lost with regular fuel, and how much will engine longevity be affected? So we'd use the premium.
Chrysler estimates 30 City/38 Highway miles per gallon, but it might be better than that; we got 34.2 mpg, revving it high and running it hard.
Our day-long test took place over winding and uncrowded roads east of San Diego (in the Sport), and around the city in the Pop and Lounge.
Passing on two-lanes, in sport mode, there was enough acceleration to work with. Shifting gears to stay in the powerband makes it fun. It's a momentum machine. It comes on at 4000 rpm and redlines at 6800, a point that's unfortunately hard to judge because of the difficulty of reading the tachometer, especially the red numbers and lines over 6000 rpm. At least the rev limiter cuts fuel gently; the engine just flattens at 6800, it doesn't nose-dive.
One treat is that the engine feels like it's ready to shift at 5000 rpm, and it certainly can be shifted there and still maintain momentum, but it just keeps putting out for another 2000 rpm, pleasantly surprising you. Another pleasing aspect is that 80 mph in 5th gear is only 3300 rpm, and on level ground it glides fairly effortlessly at that speed. Quietly too, thanks to hydraulic engine mounts and extra sound deadening material.
Ninety miles per hour in 4th gear is still only 5000 rpm. Do the math and that's a theoretical top speed of 153 mph in 4th gear; fat chance, but the sweet engine fools you into thinking it might just be capable.
The new Fiat 500 creates a niche of its own: a tiny, high-mileage, low-cost, four-seat car that has the style and performance of an Italian sports car, with a 5-star crash rating. It's 6 inches shorter than a Mini and about $4000 cheaper, while bringing a fun-factor that similar Asian cars can't match.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Cinquecento models near San Diego, California.