-Christopher Little & Scott Villeneuve
Personality. Many compact car in the US market don’t have any. They are drab, plastic-filled shells of transport. That trend is shifting, lead triumphantly by a most unlikely competitor. Over the past few years, we’ve seen some storied marques die or be sold off to the highest bidder. Standing in stark contrast is Fiat, proudly returning to the U.S. market through its acquisition of Chrysler. The 500 is the first model return, having been gone since 1984. Our friends at the Armory Fiat Studio invited us down to try one for ourselves.
For 2012, the Fiat 500 comes in four main flavors; Pop, Sport, Lounge, and Abarth. All utilize the same inline 4 (101 HP, 98 ft-lb torque), with the Abarth receiving a turbocharger for added power. The Lounge and the Pop are also available in 500C (convertible) configuration. Your choice of either a 6-speed automatic or 5-speed manual round out the drivetrain options. We sampled two Fiat 500 Sports, one of each transmission variant.
Unless you absolutely can’t live with a manual, its the version we recommend (and accounts for the vast majority of sales). It adds an element of playfulness to the car, with its light clutch and smooth shift pattern. We said this car has personality, but that might be an understatement. It honestly feels like it wants you to drive it spiritedly. The exhaust note is peppy, the steering is precise and perfectly weighted, and the suspension keeps the car steady without being harsh. Any preconceived notions you might have from the low power output vanish when you realize that the car pulls readily though each gear. The Sport has an additional button on the dash (aptly labeled “Sport”) which tightens up the steering feel even more. It’s a blast on highway on-ramps. The 500 Sport is happy car, and it wants you to be happy too.
Livability doesn’t suffer in the tiny, retro package either. Both of us are at least 6′ tall, and sat comfortably next to each other with head, shoulder, and leg room to spare. Even the salesman, Joseph, was able to comfortably sit behind us. All of the seat controls, window switches, and driver controls are cleverly located towards the center of the car, so you don’t have to contort yourself to access them. A few minor, mostly American, complaints. The storage bin/cup holder console is located on the floor forward and between the two seats. It’s difficult to see while driving, and it makes for a long reach. Not to mention the cup holders don’t look up to the task of any standard American beverage. Finally, the large “B” pillar can create a blind spot when the driver looks over his/her left shoulder to merge into traffic. On the Sport model, a blind-spot mirror integrated into the wing mirror mitigates this problem.
The Fiat 500 is rated at 30 city/38 highway, making it efficient on top of all the fun. Our test cars were comfortably equipped with automatic climate control and heated front seats. In addition, the Sport gets unique 16″ alloy wheels and a distinct body kit. All models have standard Bluetooth connectivity. The total package came in at $19,850, perfectly between what we consider it’s two main competitors, the Ford Fiesta and the Mini Cooper. The visual appeal and driving personality are what make the Fiat stand out above the others. We’d love to have gotten some seat time in an Abarth, but they can’t seem to keep them on the lot. We can see why, an extra dose of power would shock the little Fiat right up into prime Mini Cooper S territory.