Thumbs Up: Go-kart-like low speed handling.
Thumbs Down: Needs more power.
Buy This Car If: You want a frugal commuter that’s still fun to drive.
Fiat exited the U.S. market in 1984, a victim of declining market share caused by both the Japanese brands and the changing habits of the American consumer. After decades of offering affordable-yet-entertaining Italian cars like the X/19 and the Fiat 124 Spider, the quirky Italian automaker’s absence was noted primarily by devotees of the brand. American consumers instead bought trucks and SUVs, or dependable-but-bland econoboxes from Japanese automakers.
When Fiat announced its return to the U.S. market, those of us who remembered the Fiat of old welcomed the news. Finally, we’d get a chance to drive cars like the Panda, or the Bravo, or even the Punto hatchback. As it turned out, those cars wouldn’t be for U.S. consumption, simply because too many competitors already filled the showrooms of other brands. Instead, Fiat’s comeback would be based on its tragically cute Fiat 500.
Fiat originally had ambitious plans for the 500, insisting it would sell some 50,000 units in the U.S. in 2011. In fact, Fiat sold less than half that number, thanks to delayed dealership openings and a marketing campaign that never really picked up steam. Estimates for 2012 have been revised downward to 25,000 units, and I have a feeling that the automaker will easily exceed that mark. Why? Two reasons: the Fiat 500 is very good, especially in its price point, and Fiat will soon be importing the track-ready 500 Abarth.
The Fiat 500 is really all about Italian style, and it does have an undeniable “cute factor” about it. That, combined with its diminutive size, is liable to earn it “chick car” status in our V-8, truck-obsessed society, but get past that and you’ll find that the 500 is pretty damn entertaining behind the wheel.
The basic shape of the new 500 comes from the original 1957 Fiat Cinquecento (500), which was even smaller and meant as an inexpensive city car for the Italian market. Built from 1957 through 1975, the original 500 amassed a cult following along the lines of VW’s Beetle and Citroen’s 2CV; fans seemed not to care about about the 500’s microcar size or wheezing engine (which was never larger than a 594cc inline twin), content with the style and practicality of their cars.
Like the New Beetle, or the current Mustang, or even the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Fiat 500 serves up a big helping of nostalgia. That works in Europe, where the new car is instantly recognizable as a continuation of the beloved Cinquecento. Here, however, most other drivers don’t know what to make of the Fiat 500, but be warned: the car attracts a serious amount of attention. If you like anonymity, this isn’t the car for you.
The 2012 Fiat 500 comes in four basic versions, starting with the Pop edition, then running through Sport (like my Fiat-supplied tester), Lounge and Abarth. The Sport is a midrange model, differentiated by its 16-inch wheels, roof spoiler, firmer suspension tuning, foglamps, sport seats and firmer steering. There are also convertible models available in the lower three trims, which use a retractable canvas roof for partial or full al fresco motoring.
Inside, the 500 is roomier than you’d expect from the outside, at least for front seat passengers. Thanks to the car’s tall roofline, head room is never an issue for front seaters, and legroom will be sufficient for anyone of average (or slightly taller) height. The front sport seats are well-bolstered and covered in grippy fabric, which is a good thing given the Sport’s handling prowess. They’re not a seat we’d want to spend a cross-country journey in, but for the 500’s urban-commuter mission they work well.
The dash is an interesting blend of retro and modern, featuring body-colored trim and easy-to understand switchgear. Opting for the nav system gets you a removable TomTom unit that plugs into a dash-top port (but restricts vision a bit too much for our tastes). As you’d expect in the Fiat’s price point, the dash is built from textured hard plastic, but as a credit to the 500’s integrity, we never heard a squeak or rattle from the interior.
Instruments are best described as “funky.” A single large pod contains the speedometer (in an outer ring), the tachometer (in an inner ring) and the driver information display (in the center). There’s a lot going on here, and small indicator needles on the speedo and tach don’t help much, either. Ditto for the information display, which also contains the temp gauge and fuel gauge. You’ll get used to it over time, but in our opinion there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The rear seat is best used for children, pets and cargo. While easy enough to access from the passenger side, there’s simply not enough leg room for adults of any size in the rear. A quick trip to dinner or a movie isn’t out of the question, but anything longer and you’re likely to be faced with a rear-seat-passenger mutiny.
Under the hood is Fiat’s 1.4-liter MultiAir four cylinder, good for 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, mated (in our case) to a five-speed manual transmission. We’ll be frank and call it for what it is: the car is underpowered, by almost anyone’s standards. Even in “Sport” mode, which tightens the steering and improves throttle response, acceleration is leisurely. The run from 0 – 60 will take you nearly 11 seconds, and behind the wheel it feels even longer than that. The trade off is impressive fuel economy, and the EPA says to expect 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined. In primarily city driving, we saw an average of 31.3 mpg.
While the Fiat 500 Sport isn’t fast, it does handle remarkably well. Don’t let the tall cabin fool you into thinking the car’s center of gravity is too high for serious driving fun; at low speeds, the car changes direction like a go-kart, limited only by the grip of the all-season radial tires. Steering effort is on the firm side (especially in Sport mode), but it feels somewhat artificial. If you’re coming from a typical econobox, it’s likely to feel like a step up; however, if you’re coming from a VW GTI or a MINI Cooper, you’re liable to miss some steering feel. Brakes, despite their comically-small rotor size, are up to the task of scrubbing off the 500’s accumulated speed.
Like a first generation Miata, going fast in the Fiat 500 is all about preserving momentum, and the car has the potential to make nearly anyone a better driver. In fact, if you like to drive, have a modest budget and don’t plan any long-distance road trips, the Fiat 500 Sport is the perfect car to build your collection of autocross and SCCA Solo trophies with. We’d recommend the car (for urban commuters, at least) over the latest Honda Civic Si, which simply failed to impress us with handling or driving enjoyment. For now, at least, the Fiat 500 Sport is as much fun as you can have in the under $20k price segment.
Fiat provided the press-fleet loaner for our evaluation. Base price on a 2012 Fiat 500 Sport is $18,200, including a destination charge of $700, and options on the Sport model driven included the $500 Rosso Brillante paint, the $350 Safety & Sound Package (anti-theft alarm, Sirius XM Satellite Radio) and the $400 Tom Tom Navigation Package, for a total sticker price of $19,450.
For comparison, a similarly equipped MINI Cooper would sticker for $25,450, while a comparably equipped Honda Fit Sport would list at $20,310.