This week I had the opportunity to drive a Fiat 500. My neighbors got one this spring and they were kind enough to let me take it for a spin. The 500 is a modern revival of the iconic compact car which Fiat sold almost 4 million units of between 1957 and 1975.
In 2007, the new 500 was launched simultaneously in 30 Italian cities with more than a quarter of a million people in attendance and another 100,000 watching live tellivision for Fiat’s nationwide party on the 50th anniversary of the original 500’s launch. If you think that’s excessive fanfare for a car, then it should be noted that despite Italy being the most Catholic country on Earth, Sunday mass is regularly scheduled around facilitating Scuderia Ferrari themed Formula 1 watch parties in the Cathedrals.
In 2008 the 500 hit the Mexican market and spread to the US market for the 2011 model year after Fiat and the US government bought controlling interest in a failing Chrysler, who began making the car at their Toluca, Mexico plant.
The new 500 is a very stylish car with a slew of retro chrome accents. It comes in a variety of special editions including a designer Gucci edition, Abarth sport tuned models, and limited run Ferrari and Maserati models. You can also get it with a sunroof or a convertible top. Fit and finish are of impressive quality for the price and the interior is free of any annoying rattles.
Inside, the 500 is very detail oriented and Fiat went to great lengths to ensure every feature was functional, good looking, and space efficient. The buttons are large and intuitively placed. The speedometer and tachometer form concentric rings around a multifunction digital read out. It’s a car centered around having a unique identity and Fiat doesn’t let you forget that. They go so far as to cover the car in what seems like 500 “500” badges. It’s also a unique car to drive.
The seating position in the 500 is high and oriented much like that of an SUV, giving you a sense that you are safe and driving a larger car. Raising the center of gravity does, however, have a trade off; the car leans a great deal in corners. Luckily, the seats of the 500 have thick side bolsters that do an excellent job of holding you in place and minimizing your perception of the body roll. The seats are some of the most comfortable I’ve sat in, and, using the arm rest, your hand falls perfectly onto the shifter, an ergonomic trait which all cars ought to have.
Despite the leaning in the corners, the better aspect of the suspension is the steering. It’s light, fairly quick lock-to-lock, and gives you the right amount of feedback. The steering wheel, itself, is just the right diameter for a car of this size, and is thick and shaped as though it would be at home on a track day. It feels great in your hands and gives a confident sense of control that allows you to have more fun with the car.
The car is so light that you feel every bump, crack, and crevice in the road, but the suspension dulls the impact so well that even pot holes won’t make you cringe. The brakes also perform quite well, giving impressive feedback and control all the way through the pedal.
Backing up and moving into the left lane can be rather difficult. Because of the 500’s size, the pillars had to be very large to give the car extra strength for safety. If you look over your right shoulder, it’s not an issue. But if you look over your left, you still cannot see the car in your blind spot. Fiat has tried to remedy this by splitting the mirror into thirds. The two thirds closest to the car makeup a normal mirror, but the third furthest from the car is a small, convex mirror that gives you a very tiny view of any car in your blind spot. I suspect that if you owned this car, you would get used to the mirror and learn to use it effectively. For someone who only drove the car once, it was a bit terrifying in rush hour traffic and when merging onto the highway.
My other beef with the 500 is the transmission. The one I drove had the automatic transmission. My personal preference for almost any car is to have a manual transmission, as it allows you to choose how long a gear is held, as well as how smooth or hard the transmission shifts. With the 500 being so small, there’s simply not enough mass to absorb the kick of sloppy shifts. As a result, shifting from first to second gear feels like a donkey is kicking the back of your seat. Put the car in Sport Mode and it’s more like a Clydesdale is doing the kicking. Luckily, none of the other gears seem to have this problem until the car downshifts to get up to highway speeds.
The automatic transmission does have a logical upside to it; Fiat clearly understood a car of this size would be used primarily for city driving. Because of this, the transmission is geared in such a way that it happily sprints to 45mph in no time. Try going past 45mph and the miniscule 1.4 litre MultiAir economy engine struggles to muster any discernable power.
As I mentioned before, the 500 has a Sport Mode. This feature comes standard on all Fiat 500s, regardless of the trim level or options. Pressing the button tightens up the steering, making the car even more playful. It also causes the transmission to hold gears longer, letting the engine rev closer, though never really close, to it’s 6,900rpm redline. The resulting sound is fun for some, but if you don’t know what a redline is, then the engine humming harder than normal will worry you the closer you get to it.
Culturally this is meant as a throwback to the original 500, which came with a manual transmission that many Italians would regularly push to the redline. As BBC Top Gear’s co-host, James May, put it; “The whole point of the small Fiat is that you have a very small engine, powered by petrol, you rev it, and rev it, and rev it, and rev it, until the valves come out and dance ’round on top of the bonnet, and THEN you change gear.” (See the properly entertaining video here.)
The interior actually has more space than the more driving focused Mini Cooper. The backseats, however, are quite small. I’m a compact 5’4″ (the height of the average American woman,) and with the back headrest fully extended, I fit perfectly, but I have just three inches of vertical headroom. This makes the rear seats perfect for most children up to their teenage years. In contrast, the front is more than big enough for any full sized man.
The popular notion that small car is unsafe is complete nonsense. It’s an idea that led to BMW’s refusal to sell the 116i hatchback in the US saying “Americans won’t buy hatchbacks” (yes, that’s the same BMW that owns Mini Cooper, the famed hatchback company.) Until recently most pickup trucks and several best selling SUVs crumpled like a Pepsi cans in crash tests.
The Fiat 500 is an IIHS top safety pick having gotten top marks in almost all categories. The high seating position means that, similarly to the Smart ForTwo, you’re above the bumper of almost all cars and the doors hold up well to a side impact. Another point is that compared to their larger counterparts, small cars are more likely to be pushed out of the way than be crushed in a collision. I honestly felt it was a more solid vehicle than many of the full sized Japanese cars I’ve been in, which tend to feel light and hollow.
The 500 I drove was a 2012 model purchased new in the spring of 2013 for roughly $18,000 and was optioned not unlike a luxury car. There were heated two tone leather seats, Sirius XM satellite radio, iPod USB connectivity, and Bose speakers, which sounded a bit more hollow than I was expecting. The optioned sunroof made the car feel bright and spacious. A tire pressure monitoring system reminded me to add air to the front right tire.
In the December 2013 issue of Evo Magazine, writer David Vivian drove the Abarth 595 50th Anniversary Fiat 500. This is one of the many special edition 500s and it’s meant as a celebration of the 595 edition that Abarth did 50 years ago. (Side note: The original 595 was so impressive that Fiat acquired the Abarth tuning house in 1971.) Despite being what Fiat calls the “world’s smallest super car,” Vivian says it’s more fun than the plain 500, but isn’t solid competition for hot hatches. He seems to like the car, but he struggles to pin down whether it’s actually good or bad. I have the same problem with the regular 500.
Overall, the Fiat 500 is not a great car; you could complain about it’s pitfalls all day. But honestly, you wouldn’t. I had a great time driving it! It’s just good fun and illicits a feeling of joy from the moment you see it to the the moment you park it for the night. I’m graduating from college in six months and a gently used 500 ranks close to my ideal moderately used BMW 3 series, particularly if I end up working in a bigger city. If I owned one, I’d definitely have the manual and I’d probably tell everyone I knew how much I loved it.
When I asked my neighbors, they said their favorite aspects were the fantastic fuel economy (combined EPA rating of 30 mpg, though most drivers get better, particularly if they have the manual transmission) and how easy it is to park. Between the price and the safety, it’s truly a perfect car for teens, college students, people with their first post college job, and older people who don’t travel much. If you’re in the market for a new car, stopping at your local Chrysler dealer for a test drive is a must.