The Fiat 500 is finally on sale in the United States, and it is a big deal. Conveniently for the Chrysler Group, the car’s arrival is coinciding with a huge jump in fuel prices. Even though the 500 doesn’t get fantastic mileage, it’s EPA-rated at 30/38 mpg city/highway, which is more economical than most. The 500 starts at a friendly $16,000 and offers tons of style and lots of opportunity for additional personalization. The low price, however, shows through in the interior materials and assembly quality, which are both average at best. Still, the interior is very functional and would be easy to live with.
I’m a big fan of good thigh support in car seats, but these bulging leather front seats push that concept to the limit, so I’d encourage any potential 500 buyers to take a nice long test drive to make sure they’re comfortable in these chairs. The rear seats are moderately comfortable for this five-foot-six reviewer, but getting back there requires agility. Four six-footers aren’t going to comfortably fit inside this small Fiat.
The “sport” button definitely makes a difference in steering feel, firming it up, but even with that mode engaged, the steering is a bit too light for my liking during spirited cornering. Few will mistake the cornering abilities of the Fiat 500 for those of a MINI Cooper, but the 500 is amusing and fun at the very least, as long as you don’t expect too much. And the 500 rides more comfortably than any Mini I’ve driven.
The direct-injected 1.4-liter four-cylinder is fun to exercise via the slick (yet loose) five-speed manual, and overall the 500 doesn’t feel as slow as you might expect from a car with such a small engine. (Granted, I had just driven a slow-as-plate-tectonics smart fortwo Electric Drive the previous day.) I did miss the wave of torque that I experienced driving a turbo-diesel Fiat 500 convertible last summer in the United Kingdom. As Phil noted, the upcoming Abarth edition will be a welcome addition to the 500 lineup.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
I’ve been driving a lot of big vehicles lately, so it felt great to get into a small, nimble vehicle that barely weighs more than a ton. Despite the light curb weight, the Fiat 500 is remarkably stable and comfortable on the highway. I don’t remember being nearly this comfortable behind the wheel of our Four Seasons Honda Fit, and the Fit certainly wasn’t as quiet as the Fiat on the highway.
The interior of the Fiat 500 is quite possibly the most European space in the American automotive landscape. The designers weren’t afraid to leave the plastic untextured or some screws and bolts exposed in areas like the seat tracks. It doesn’t come off as cheap or unfinished, more like the extra attention was spent tuning the steering and suspension instead of pleasing a focus group that probably wouldn’t appreciate a small car anyway. There’s a general sense of utility in the cabin that seems practical and logical without being cheap. It’s proof that a small car doesn’t need luxury touches like leather, heated seats, or a sophisticated navigation system to feel premium.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the 500, although I wonder how tolerant I’d be of the 1.4-liter four-cylinder if I had to live with it every day. Thankfully, Fiat is bringing over an Abarth version with a pretty huge bump in power next year. If you’ve been waiting this long for a Fiat 500 in the States, what’s another year?
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
On my way home from work in the Fiat 500 I stopped off at the grocery store, where I ended up parking just a couple spots away from a Smart ForTwo, which of course invited the inevitable comparison. I’m not a fan of the Smart, because I find it impractical and too cartoonish, but I don’t get that vibe from the Fiat. Admittedly, the 500 is somewhat cartoonish with its retro styling and tiny dimensions, but it ends up being more usable than the Smart. For one, it’s bigger – a little less than three feet longer than the Smart and about the same width and height. That means there’s room for a back seat (not that I’d want to sit back there) and a bit more storage space. For another thing, the drivetrain is better – the Fiat’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder produces a respectable 101 hp, and power is delivered through a five-speed manual (or an optional six-speed automatic) that, while not the most refined transmission, is infinitely better than the balky five-speed automated manual in the Smart.
Inside, the Fiat 500 wins, too. The interior isn’t as bare-bones as the Smart’s, as it features two-tone upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a standard armrest. One thing I’d change, though, is the location of the optional Tom-Tom nav unit. It’s mounted high on the dash to the left of the center stack, and it causes a bit of a blind spot.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
Like the Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen New Beetle, the Fiat looks like a modern version of an old design and also like those vehicles, the retro modern styling works. It definitely falls on the cheeky side of the spectrum but — mostly due to its really cool wheels and bright red brakes — I think it manages to look sporty enough to be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, the experience behind the wheel does little to support this impression of sportiness, with an anemic engine, lifeless steering, and a sloppy manual shifter. The 500 can still be good fun, though, but only if you’re willing to work at it. Especially around town, this means keeping the throttle floored, downshifting every time the brakes are applied, and not upshifting until the tach hits five grand. On the highway, the 500 actually behaves better than I expected for such a small car. Its ride can be a little jarring over large road imperfections but even at high speeds, the 500 feels fairly stable.
The interior — at least on this test car — also has a sporty look to it, with perforated leather on the seats and steering wheel, both of which have a suppleness to them that belie this vehicle’s price. After looking around a bit, though, it seems that there was no money left to spend on the other interior materials, as hard, cheap-looking plastics dominate the remainder of the cabin. But, it’s still a fairly comfortable place to spend time. The seats are nicely bolstered and supportive, the shifter is well placed, and the steering wheel has a satisfyingly thick rim. What’s most amazing about the cabin is that, relatively speaking, it doesn’t feel cramped. I think the Fiat designers deserve praise for creating a neat, organized, and unobtrusive console that makes the interior feel much larger than it is. This is especially true when you consider that the shifter is taking up valuable real estate on the central console. The gauges are also a study in space efficiency. The tach and speedo are layered, one inside of the other in a tidy, three-quarter circle, in the center of which is a digital display that includes fuel level, engine- and outside temperature, and more. It looks good and it crams a lot of information into a really small area directly in front of the driver. Nicely done.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Of its many competitors, the only car over which the Fiat 500 has a practical advantage is the Smart ForTwo. Unlike the Smart, the Fiat is a real car with a backseat and cargo area; it turns in similar mileage numbers, but looks and feels much better doing it. To choose the 500 over its other competitors, however, is purely a lifestyle choice. Do you want to be first on the block driving one of these funky little cars, or one of the Fiesta-driving masses? The competitors all offer some combination of greater utility, more performance, or better economy, but as good as many of them are, none have this little Fiat’s “je ne sais quoi.” (Sorry, but the French is better than the Italian).
The 500 is a good-looking little car, but as much as this charcoal 500 Sport tries to look tough with its aggressively handsome rims and spoiler, the overriding reaction is still, “Cute!”
The cabin also puts a priority on style. The seats and steering wheel are among the best-looking and nicest feeling you’ll find in a car under $30K. Understandably, with the attention devoted to the seats, sacrifices had to made elsewhere in a car this cheap, but the other details and materials seem no worse than the rest of the pack. The painted dash panel and unorthodox instrumentation is straight from the Beetle/Mini playbook. Stacking the gauges on top of each other looks cool, and the execution is good. This is also the first car with a high, dash-mounted stick shift that wasn’t a turn-off for me.
Need more proof this vehicle is all about fashion? Even BMW didn’t call Mini showrooms, “studios.”
Matt Tierney, Art Director
Around the streets of Ann Arbor, the Fiat 500 doesn’t feel as tight and as right to me as it did on the winding canyon and desert roads outside San Diego, where I last drove a 500 back in January during the media preview. I remembered better steering feel and a gearshift that had more precision. Still, this is a car with high style at a low price.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
2012 Fiat 500 Sport
Base price (with destination): $18,000
Price as tested: $19,400
1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
Electronic stability control
Hill start assist
Tire pressure monitoring system
Rear window defroster
Driver seat memory
Bose premium audio
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Auxiliary audio input jack
Tilt steering wheel
50/50 split-fold rear seats
Chrome shift knob
Options on this vehicle:
Power sunroof — $800
TomTom navigation — $400
Automatic temperature control — $150
Key options not on vehicle:
6-speed automatic transmission — $1000
30 / 38 / 33 mpg
1.4L SOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 101 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 98 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Curb weight: 2363 lb
Wheels/tires: 16 x 6.5-inch aluminum wheels
195/45R16 all-season tires
What’s new? It’s in America!