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.
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.
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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.
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.