Several years have passed since I last drove a Fiat 500, the mini-car Fiat re-launched its brand with in the U.S. market for 2012.
The 500 hasn’t grown any, nor changed much, which depending on your point of view may be good, or a bit sad. The 500’s cuteness level remains high. It still looks like a slightly more modern version of the original rear-engine 1957 model it’s designed to resemble.
Still rides on a Mazda Miata-like 90.6-inch wheelbase, is just 139.6 inches long with 4.5 inches of ground clearance and tips the scales at a modest 2,366 lbs.
Fiat’s 500 is designed for carrying two folks, mostly, and for scrunching into tight city parking spaces. Suburban dads might feel comfortable buying one for a high schooler’s first car. Power is low, cuteness is high!
Let’s start with the power, or lack thereof. Fiat continues with its 1.4-liter I4 with MultiAir to boost its power and efficiency. Still, it delivers just 101 horsepower and 97 ft-lbs. of torque. Mostly it feels weak. Acceleration is reasonable in first and second gear so you’ll get moving OK, plus the car is so svelte that it isn’t fighting forward movement. But from third gear on you feel the car’s weakness. On the interstate it cruises fine at 70, but it’s not a quick run-up to highway speeds.
The six-speed automatic, which is a $1,350 option on the tested gray Easy model, shifts roughly too. There is hesitation and sometimes it feels as if it’s holding a gear too long to get the maximum oomph, making the engine buzzy. I prefer the 5-speed manual I had in an earlier model. Plus there’s a Sport mode button on the dash to change the shift pattern. It may have helped acceleration a bit, but shifts were more abrupt.
Handling though is light and quick, so the car is fun to drive. Sporty? I wouldn’t call it that, but the Fiat is easy to toss around and is certainly easy to part and maneuver in tight city quarters, parking garages, etc.
Braking comes from four discs with ABS and a stability program, so that’s fine. But ride was rough, thanks to that short wheelbase. I was surprised a bit because the Sport version I’d driven previously had a much better ride, but featured a sport-tuned suspension and 16-inch tires vs. 15-inchers here.
This may be a good spot to explain the 500 lineup, which starts with the Pop model at $17,990, including delivery. It has the same 101-horse engine and 5-speed manual. Next up is the tested Easy, then Sport with the better suspension and tires, red brake calipers and tiny spoiler. The Turbo model ups the pony power to 135 horses, which is a big help and the Lounge is a tad more luxurious. This year there’s a 1957 or Retro model starting at $22,290 to give the car more styling flair to reflect the original 500s of nearly 60 years ago.
For the record, the base models with the 5-speed manual are rated 31 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, which is laudable. By adding the automatic the test car rating slipped to 27 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. Sadly I managed just 29.5 mpg in about 60% city driving. In the Sport I’d averaged 37 mpg in about 60% highway driving. Still, by way of comparison I got 30.8 mpg in the much larger, more comfortable and more useful Honda Civic sedan I’d driven recently.
Inside, the Fiat 500 remains sporty and attractive. Like today’s MINI, the interior carries a rounded theme, as in round air vents, round hub for the door release handle, round Fiat emblem on the steering wheel, a round power mirror button in the door, round radio push buttons and climate control buttons, round red headrests. Well, you get the idea.
Also Fiat appears to have invested in sound deadening, which you may not expect in an entry-level car. While there is some road noise from below the car, wind and engine noise are well muffled.
People praised the front seats as they are somewhat snug on the bottom but mildly contoured on their backs. While firm, they aren’t hard. The test car featured textured gray and black cloth seats with red headrests and the steering wheel is leather-wrapped. There is a pump handle on the side to raise the driver’s seat height and a handle on the inner edge of the seat back to adjust its angle. Both front seats have fold-down armrests, but they are mostly in the way. I left them up all week.
Taller riders are happy with the head and legroom up front, but the 500 is narrow, so you’d better be fond of any front seat passengers. I’m short and still could nearly reach across and touch the passenger’s door handle. Rear seats? Yes, they are there, but basically for show. Putting my 6-year-old grandson in a car seat was tight and I had to move the passenger seat forward for HIM to have legroom. Really!
A few other interior points of interest. First, the dash was a hard gray plastic that looked cheap, not nearly as nice as the seats. Yet the round radio screen and gauges are easy to see and use. The touchscreen radio even responded quickly to taps of a gloved finger, so take that all you luxury brands that can’t figure out a decent touchscreen radio. Plus the pricy Easy Collection 2 option package ($1,200) adds a snazzy Beats stereo, satellite radio, auto temp controls and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
There is a manual tilt/telescope steering wheel, but it would not lower enough to suit me. It was at an awkwardly tall angle that made me feel like a bus driver hugging the wheel all week. Tall folks won’t notice. There are radio, phone and cruise buttons on the front and back of the wheel’s hub.
Naturally there are two cup holders and storage below the dash that protrudes to hold the shifter. Electrical hookups, such as the USB port, are down there too. Overhead there was no sunroof and the slim sun visors were basically useless, even though they folded to the side. On the plus side, there’s a wiper on the rear hatch window that helps clear the window of frost and snow.
The test car started at a modest $17,745, plus $995 delivery fee. With options it moved to $21,290. That’s just $600 less than the Civic I’d driven recently and the Honda was a much more comfortable, useful car that provided good rear seat room for passengers. Still, if you’re after cute, the Fiat 500 may be calling your name.
Note too that there is a 500e, electric model; the Abarth, a sportier 500 with 160-horse turbocharged motor; and a 500c, with a canvas convertible top that slides down between the C-pillars. So options abound, if tiny transportation is what you’re after.
FAST STATS: 2016 Fiat 500 Easy
Hits: Cute small hatchback with rear wiper. Easy to park and maneuver and fairly quiet interior.
Misses: Lacks power, rough shifts especially in Sport mode, no room in back seat, even child seat is tight fit. Hard plastic interior plus useless sun visors, steering wheel angles up too far.
Made in: Toluca, Mexico
Engine: 1.4-liter, I4, MultiAir, 101 hp
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Weight: 2,366 lbs.
Length: 139.6 in.
Wheelbase: 90.6 in.
Cargo: 9.5 cu.ft.
MPG: 27/34 (EPA)
MPG: 29.5 (tested)
Base Price: $17,745
Invoice: $18,462 (includes delivery)
6-speed automatic, $1,350
Easy collection 2 (Sirius XM radio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, auto temp control A/C w/filter, Beats premium audio system, black/gray seats), $1,200
Test vehicle: $21,290
Sources: Fiat, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage