2012 Fiat 500 Review

Fiat’s return to America heralded by the iconic Italian car

2012 Fiat 500 Review

The road snakes steeply upward as we zip from corner to corner, whipping up gravel on the road’s edge, the local greenery fluttering in the car’s tiny wake as we nearly miss larger chunks of rock jutting out on the tightest of curves. Tuscany comes to mind, but this is not Italy. No, we’re in California.

FAST FACTS

1. The Fiat 500 marks the return of the Fiat brand to North America, with plans to introduce more models this year.

2. Powered by a 101-hp 1.4L 4-cylinder, the 500 gets 30/38-mpg (city/hwy) with a 5-speed manual and 27/34-mpg with a 6-speed automatic.

3. Fiat insists there is no ‘base’ model 500, with all trim levels getting power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, an Electronic Vehicle Information Center, 7 airbags and an auxiliary input jack.

4. Pricing starts at $15,500.

The car, however, is Italian. A Fiat no less. In fact, we’re one of the lucky few to sample the very modern, yet fabulously nostalgic experience of piloting the first Fiat to be sold on these shores in 27 years.

A sign of the changing times, the Fiat 500, or the more fun to say ‘cinquecento’, might be evidence of America’s changing perceptions of small cars. More practically, however, it has come to market as the result of Chrysler’s savior Fiat, which took over the American auto giant and ensured its bankruptcy did not end in liquidation.

Did you know we have a community of Fiat 500 enthusiasts? Check out Fiat500Owners.com!

Gathered together at the Culy Warehouse in downtown San Diego to introduce the 500, the folks at Fiat North America are seemingly unaware of the brutal irony that this place could be mistaken for a mechanic’s garage.

MORE THAN JUST A LIFESTYLE VEHICLE

Along with the usual breakdown of specifications, it’s surprising to learn just who Fiat intends to target with this new model. On the one hand, there’s the obvious lifestyle competitor, the MINI Cooper. On the other hand, there are cars like the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Yaris.

Spending a day behind the wheel reveals that while pricing is a factor, with the 500 bridging the gap between these two disparate types of small cars, there are numerous other ways the 500 delivers a compelling halfway point between the transportation you need and the fun car you really want.

CUTE, OR TOO CUTE?

Described by its designer Roberto Giolito as resembling a baby’s sneaker, the 500 is undeniably cute. Certain to make the car a hit with women, it’s less likely to resonate with a male audience – young or old. But don’t worry guys, just hold out for another year when you’ll find the Abarth-tuned model far more appealing thanks to more than a 50 percent boost in power.

Even the manliest of men can, however, appreciate its originality, which helped the 500 win the 2009 World Car Design of the Year award.

NO BASE MODEL

Three different trim levels, Pop, Sport and Lounge are available with differing content. The Pop model ($15,500) is the most basic, but Fiat representatives will tell you there is no ‘base’ model with every trim level getting power windows and locks, power heated mirrors, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, cruise control, an Electronic Vehicle Information Center, 7 airbags, an auxiliary input jack and a paint-matched dash.

Upgrading to a Sport model ($17,500) will get you stiffer springs and shocks, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a more audible exhaust note and special bodywork, plus sportier seats with upgraded material, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, handsfree voice controls and an incredibly high-quality 6-speaker Bose audio system.

Further up the list is the Lounge ($19,500), with many of the Sport’s amenities, a few more high-grade trim bits and the 6-speed automatic transmission standard. Add on the Luxury Leather Package (complete with heated seats and park assist) and the interior now resembles the more premium MINI. It also starts to cost like one too.

SMALL BUT NOT TINY

Diminutive it may be, but the 500 isn’t ridiculously compact like the Smart fortwo, stretching almost three feet further. It’s easy to get into and out of thanks to a high-up seating position, an immediate contrast with the low-slung MINI. The Fiat is undoubtedly a European-style city car, designed to give excellent mobility in urban areas with a solid view of your surroundings. You won’t feel intimidated on the highway and the car actually holds up to gusts of winds on open stretches of roads far better than expected. There is, however, an excessively large over-the-shoulder blind spot.

Both the seats and the suspension are softer than the MINI, which delivers a setup perfect for an autocross, but hardly ideal for the majority of buyers. A thick steering wheel feels good in the hands, although the soft surfaces on the doors are about as thin as can be, meaning that it doesn’t take long to develop a sore elbow.

Inside, Giolito says it’s “naked but refined” which is true in many ways with a simple yet stylish paint-matched dash drawing your attention away from the significant amount of hard plastic on the doors.

The car’s sporting pretensions are hampered by the upright interior, with pedals that you step on, rather than push against. There’s a tilt steering wheel, but not a telescopic one, which means taller drivers will have to move a little further up than they might like, with knees to a near 90 degree angle as though you’re behind the wheel of the world’s smallest bus.

There’s plenty of room inside for the driver and passenger, although anyone around 6-feet might want to think about not getting a sunroof and anyone taller won’t have much choice. Rear seat space is utterly useless; same as in the MINI. As for cargo room, it’s a reasonable 9.5 cubic feet, which won’t fit the groceries for a family of five, but will hold overnight bags for two.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all but the Lounge model. Located at the front of the dash, rather than on the floor, it’s in the perfect place. The shifter does feel more like an economy car than a premium small car, and doesn’t line up with the likes of the MINI or the Honda Fit. Ultra-fast shifts it wasn’t made for, and you can feel the interruption in power every time you grab a gear.

IMPRESSIVE NEW ENGINE TECHNOLOGY

Each of the gears is likely to get a workout as you’re required to rev out the tiny 1.4-liter 4-cylinder. Torque isn’t bad though at 98 lb-ft so it’s zippy enough around town.

Helping to produce that power and hit some pretty impressive fuel economy numbers is the application of Fiat’s Multiair technology, also known as Fully Variable Valve Actuation. If you don’t care about engine technology, skip to the next paragraph. If you’re even remotely interested, we’ll say that essentially this system works by replacing the intake cam with four electrohydraulic actuators that allow the ECU to control how much air is entering the cylinder, rather than by using a mechanical system. The result is a 10 percent increase in peak power, a 15 percent bump in low-end torque and a 15 percent improvement in fuel economy.

Lifestyle buyers aren’t likely to care too much about fuel economy, but it may be a factor in winning over some traditional small car buyers. The 1.4-liter engine is rated at 30-mpg city and 38-mpg highway for a 33-mpg combined number. That’s for the manual, with automatic models a less impressive, but still very good, 27/34-mpg.

Helping to further improve the urban scoot is a Sport button (included on all trim levels, not just the Sport). Pushing it firms-up throttle response and tightens the steering on manual models, delivering a significantly more engaging driving experience. When pushed, the car really hops forward in urban driving, although the benefits are gone once you get beyond 3rd gear.

Automatic transmission models also get more sensitive steering and better throttle response in Sport mode, plus the transmission holds on to gears longer to keep you in the power. We were genuinely shocked that the slushbox doesn’t kill the fun.

A solid amount of fun in base trim, the Sport model’s stiffer suspension and 16-inch wheels with wider and lower profile 195/45 series tires deliver plenty of grip, allowing you to sail around corners. The 500’s design may make it look a bit tippy, but it’s incredibly solid and begs to be tossed around, aided by responsiveness and feedback from the wheel. The engine, however, doesn’t deliver the same emotion, feeling a bit strung out and unhappy at higher revs.

Targeted as a car that can be used for all your needs, we’re tempted to think a lot of buyers will be packing up the Cayenne for longer trips. Approach a steep grade on the highway and the lack of grunt is evident. If you’re in a spirited mood, you’ll be happy to drop gears, but for more normal driving the 500 can feel a bit winded.

RE-ENGINEERED FOR AMERICA

Quiet on the open road, the U.S.-spec model gets improved sound deadening in the pillars, added door seals and an acoustic dampening engine cover, bringing it from the back of the pack, to ahead of class-leading cars like the Honda Fit.

Other U.S.-spec upgrades include a reworked chassis with new, stiffer bushings, revised front suspension geometry designed to reduce dive and a new front sway bar to minimize body roll. And the list goes on. Fiat even intends to adopt all these U.S.-spec changes to its European market models in the future.

Inside, drivers will appreciate small items like the addition of an armrest, plus more comfortable seats. And due to the harsher extremes of the North American climate, the car is designed to start at temperatures as low as -40 degrees.

This attention to the unique demands of the U.S. market does seem to show a more reliable and durable product that what Fiat attempted to sell here in the past, although only time will tell.

To attract those driven by their right brain, the Fiat 500 can be treated like a fashion accessory with 14 exterior and interior colors, plus 30 seat covers and 50 accessories. And to appease the left brain in the land of big-cars-are-safe-cars is a 5-start Euro crash rating, 7-airbags, standard stability control and a 4-year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, plus a 3-year/36,000 mile complimentary maintenance plan.

THE VERDICT

When stacked up against the MINI Cooper, the Fiat 500 doesn’t deliver quite the same level of driving performance, but that’s not to say it’s any less fun. In the lifestyle segment, it’s arguably got more cache, and when it comes to the urban dwellers who are likely to find it appealing, it’s easily more livable on a daily basis. And for those in need of a small car for basic transportation, the Fiat delivers modest practicality for two, excellent fuel economy and a price that isn’t out of reach.

In the world of small urban transportation, the Fiat 500 might just be the perfect pairing of efficiency and practicality with performance and style.

RELATED READING

2011 Honda CR-Z Review 2010 Honda Fit Review 2011 Ford Fiesta: First Drive

2009 Toyota Yaris 2011 Mazda 2 Review

« Back
SWEEPSTAKES – OFFICIAL RULES, TERMS AND CONDITIONS

AutoGuide.com’s Monthly Overlay Newsletter Signup – By subscribing to our email newsletter, Entrants are eligible to win one (1) Amazon.com Gift Card (value of $100.00 USD). One (1) winner will be chosen every month at random and contacted by VerticalScope Inc.’s staff. *Amazon.com is not a sponsor of this promotion. Except as required by law, Amazon.com Gift Cards ("GCs") cannot be transferred for value or redeemed for cash. GCs may be used only for purchases of eligible goods at Amazon.com or certain of its affiliated websites. For complete terms and conditions, see www.amazon.com/gc-legal. GCs are issued by ACI Gift Cards, Inc., a Washington corporation. All Amazon ®, ™ & © are IP of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. No expiration date or service fees.

1. NO PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND IS NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES. AGE/RESIDENCY RESTRICTIONS, VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.

2. PRIZE: One (1) Winner will be randomly selected every month to each receive: one (1) $100.00 Amazon.com Gift Card (the “Prize Supplier”). Total approximate retail value of all prizes is approximately $100.00 USD. Prizes are not transferable and no cash or prize substitution is allowed. Prize package is awarded "as is" with no warranty or guarantee, either express or implied.

3. ELIGIBILITY: From the time of entry through the final date of prize fulfillment, each contest entrant and selected entrant must be a permanent lawful citizen and resident residing in the 50 United States or the District of Columbia or in Canada, and be twenty one (21) years of age or older. VOID IN PUERTO RICO, THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS, IN ALL FOREIGN COUNTRIES OUTSIDE OF THE UNITED STATES, AND ALL OTHER U.S. TERRITORIES OR CANADA AND POSSESSIONS AND WHERE PROHIBITED OR RESTRICTED BY LAW. Employees, officers, directors, agents and representatives, of the Sponsor and the Prize Supplier and each of their respective parent companies, affiliates, subsidiaries, advertising and promotion agencies, promotion partners and any entity involved in the development, production, implementation, administration or fulfillment of this Sweepstakes, and the immediate family members (e.g., spouse, mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, grandparent, in-law, daughter and son, regardless of where they live) and persons living in the same household (whether or not related) of such individuals are not eligible to participate or win. Only one selected entrant per household. All decisions of the Sponsor with respect to this sweepstakes are final. The Sponsor shall have the right at any time to require proof of identity and failure to provide such proof may result in disqualification from the Sweepstakes.

4. ENTER BY INTERNET: You may enter this sweepstakes via the Internet by logging onto AutoGuide.com and subscribing to our email newsletter via the pop-up overlay.

5. SELECTION OF WINNER: One (1) Entrant will be selected by random selection who have subscribed to our email newsletter. The winner may be announced publicly on AutoGuide.com and will be contacted by VerticalScope Inc.’s staff. The winner will be required to provide a mailing address (that is not a P.O. box) to receive the prize which will be shipped free of charge.

6. ODDS OF WINNING: Odds of winning a prize are determined by the total number of eligible entries received.

7. RESTRICTIONS: The prize package consists of one (1) Amazon.com Gift Card with an approximate value of $100.00 USD. If prize cannot be awarded due to circumstances beyond the control of the Sponsor or Prize Supplier, no substitute prize will be awarded due to the unique nature of the prize. Sponsor and Prize Supplier shall not be liable to the winner or any person claiming through winner for failure to supply the prize or any part thereof, by reason of any acts of God, any action(s), regulation(s), order(s) or request(s) by any governmental or quasi-governmental entity (whether or not the action(s), regulations(s), order(s) or request(s) prove(s) to be invalid), equipment failure, utility failure, internet failure, terrorist acts, threatened terrorist acts, air raid, blackout, act of public enemy, earthquake, war (declared or undeclared), fire, flood, epidemic, explosion, unusually severe weather, hurricane, embargo, labor dispute or strike (whether legal or illegal) labor or material shortage, transportation interruption of any kind, work slow-down, civil disturbance, insurrection, riot, or any other cause beyond Sponsor's or Prize Supplier's control (collectively, "Force Majeure Event"). Sponsor shall not be responsible for any cancellations, delays, diversions or substitutions or any act or omissions whatsoever by the performers/events, other transportation companies or any other persons providing any of these services and accommodations to passengers including any results thereof such as changes in services or accommodations necessitated by same.

8. CONDITIONS: By entering the Sweepstakes, entrants agree to be bound by the Official Rules, Terms and Conditions and that Sponsor has the irrevocable right to use in perpetuity entrants' names, user names, likenesses, photographs, voices, home mailing address, biographical and prize information, and entry materials, without notice to entrants and without compensation or obligation, in any and all media now or hereafter known throughout the world, in any manner whatsoever, to advertise and promote Sponsor, its products and services, the Sweepstakes, and for any other purpose except where prohibited by law. Entrant waives the right to assert as a cost of winning a prize any and all costs of verification and redemption or travel to redeem said prize and any liability which might arise from redeeming or seeking to redeem said prize. Sponsor is not responsible for fraudulent calls or emails made to entrants not by the Sponsor. If the Sweepstakes is not capable of running as planned by reason of damage by computer viruses, worms or bugs, tampering, unauthorized intervention, fraud, technical limitations or failures, any Force Majeure Event or any other cause which, in the sole opinion of Sponsor, could corrupt, compromise, undermine or otherwise affect the administration, security, fairness, integrity, viability or proper conduct of the Sweepstakes, Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole and absolute discretion, to cancel, terminate, modify or suspend all or any part of the Sweepstakes, and to select a winner from among all eligible entries received by Sponsor up until the time of such cancellation, termination, modification or suspension, as applicable. Sponsor reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any individual that (i) tampers or attempts to tamper with the entry process or the operations of this Sweepstakes in any manner, (ii) violates the Official Rules, Terms and Conditions or (iii) acts in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner, or with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any other person. CAUTION: ANY ATTEMPT BY AN ENTRANT OR ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL TO DELIBERATELY DAMAGE OR UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMATE OPERATION OF THIS SWEEPSTAKES IS A VIOLATION OF CRIMINAL AND CIVIL LAWS. SHOULD SUCH AN ATTEMPT BE MADE, SPONSOR RESERVES THE RIGHT TO SEEK CIVIL AND/OR CRIMINAL PROSECUTION AND/OR DAMAGES FROM ANY SUCH PERSON TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW. Any expenses and receipt and use of the prize and federal, state and local taxes and fees applicable in connection with the prize awarded are the sole responsibility of the winner. An IRS Form 1099 will be issued in the name of the winner for the actual value of the prize received. This Sweepstakes is subject to all federal, state and local laws of the United States. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED. Sponsor, Prize Supplier, and their respective officers, directors, parent companies, affiliates, subsidiaries and advertising and promotion agencies, employees, representatives and agents are not responsible for and shall not be liable for (i) any injuries, losses or damages of any kind caused by a prize resulting from acceptance, possession or usage of the prize, or (ii) printing, distribution or production errors. Sponsor or its affiliates may rescind any promotion found to contain such errors without liability at its or their sole discretion.

9. SPONSOR: The Sponsor of this contest is VerticalScope Inc. (the owner and operator of AutoGuide.com), 111 Peter Street, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, M5V 2H1.

Subscribe to our email newsletter and automatically be entered to win.
*Restrictions apply. See offer for details

Get Breaking Automotive News, Reviews and Video in your Facebook Feed!

Already Liked