The 500 does take a page from the Mini playbook in its zippy performance, fun-to-drive character, and go-cart handling, although it is not quite as sporty overall as the British car. Handling, body control, and turn-in are commendable. In our earlier drive of a pre-production prototype, the electric power steering was disappointingly light and disconnected-feeling, but the 500's chief engineer, Fabio DiMuro, tells us that "we've changed the half-shaft to improve on-center response and give the impression of more directness." Their efforts succeeded: the 500's steering is now very precise, even if it could still use a bit more feel. A sport button on the dash adds a bit of steering effort (and also changes the throttle mapping and the automatic transmission's shift logic). We've been very impressed with the 500's ride quality over a variety of roads, including the beaten-up pavement in and around NYC and near our editorial offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we've driven pre-production-spec 500s; as well as on the smoother roads of San Diego County, where we drove a production-spec car. This is especially true given the car's ultra-short wheelbase.
What makes it go
The 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder, which is manufactured at a Chrysler plant in Dundee, Michigan, then shipped to the 500's assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico, makes 101 hp and 97 pound-feet of torque, plenty enough to motivate the roughly 2400-pound Fiat. Off-the-line acceleration is a bit slow, but once you get the revs up the car moves along very well (the torque peak arrives at 4000 rpm). The engine is pretty vocal; a sportier exhaust note to offset that would be welcome. EPA fuel economy figures are 30/38 mpg city/highway for the manual transmission and 27/34 mpg with the automatic. These figures slightly exceed those of the base Mini Cooper but fall slightly short of the figures for the most economical versions of the Ford Fiesta or even the much larger Chevy Cruze.
Fiat 500 buyers have a choice of a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic (except for buyers of the Lounge model, which is offered only with the automatic). Shifters for both are located not on the floor but in a pod that projects out from the dashboard, a surprisingly convenient solution. The manual's shift action is light but not especially positive; the automatic includes a separate gate for up- and down-shifts but no shift paddles. Shift paddles -- and a turbocharged engine -- will have to wait until the Abarth version arrives next year. Fiat offers a six-speed manual gearbox in Europe, but chief engineer DiMuro tells us that he was not able to package it in the U.S.-spec 500 without sacrificing a vertical linkage between the horizontal crash-protection beams. He hasn't decided yet whether he'll package the six-speed for the Abarth, which arrives in early 2012 with, DiMuro assures us, "much higher" horsepower than the current MultiAir's 101-hp rating. The Abarth will also feature the predictable upgrades in brakes, suspension, wheels, and seats, and its front fascia will project two inches farther forward to accommodate the turbo.