The 2012 Fiat 500
Road Test Recap
by Merkel Weiss 9/1/11
I’ve been an owner, driver, and sometimes mechanic of Fiats for about 40 years now so and I think it’s probably time to go on the record for the new Fiat Cinquecento (Americans say: chin-kway-chen-toe). Sure this is a pretty little car, and I honestly can’t say that I know anyone who isn’t charmed by the way it looks. I like the styling too. Frank Stephenson was charged with this design when he was the head of design at Fiat Centro Stile, subsequent to his stint as the head of Ferrari styling. Most interestingly, he also designed the Mini which a comparison that we might as well take up right away.
Clearly both are good looking small cars. They both do a nice job of esthetically referencing their histories without being actually retro, and that’s just about where the similarity ends. Today’s Mini Cooper is an upscale car within reach of near-luxury status, while the Fiat 500 is an economy car. Their buyer demographics are very different, and naturally their driving characteristics are also.
I had the pleasure of driving a European 500, and I guess that it must have spoiled me because there are many things that I find different, despite the factory saying that they are near identical. The right front seat is too high and my 6 foot frame doesn’t want to get planted properly. Either my head hits the roof or the seat is reclined too far back. Either way, this is preferable to the rear seat which is a torture chamber, uninhabitable by anything with actual legs. The car is more of a 2-seater, whereas I seemed to fit into the European car‘s rear seat somewhat better. Even small children will require the front seats to be moved forward. The driver’s seat is fine, although I’d prefer a bit more lateral support and a longer bottom cushion, but I guess that will have to wait for the Abarth version. Strangely enough, I found the European version to be adequate in all these details.
Once under way, I find that the ride is lovely and the handling nimble, and the actual combination of ride and handling is magic. This is something that only the Italians seem to be able to do. The car body feels solid as well, more so than one might expect from any car this size. The Mini Cooper, and most especially the S version has always been too stiff for me, and I tend to like stiff cars having used my share of Bilstein Sport and Koni shocks in most of my cars.
The Fiat 500 is a little car that rides well, handles well and parks easily. It’s easy around town and it’s serious fun on the curvies. In fact it’s pretty darn good on the highway as well, although the fuel economy of 34mpg is at least 20% lower than it should be for a car of this size, weight, and engine design.
On the road, some may find, and it has been mentioned to me by more mature and experienced drivers, that the rather smallish sized instrument cluster’s menu driven functions are difficult to read. As a result, they’re hard to interpret which is exactly the opposite of why they are there in the first place, I presume. All of this is unlike past Fiats whose instrumentation is generally complete, easy to decipher, and generally flawless. The steering is superb, but I find the brake pedal a bit overboosted. This new 500 has a nicely laid out interior, but aside from the steering wheel, it’s mostly executed with cheap looking materials, in my opinion. In the rear, the trunk is fairly spacious for such a small car. But I have to say that if you drop the rear seats down, the space becomes fairly cavernous.
I like the 1368cc Multiaire engine a great deal. It has this intelligent valve lift and duration system that works seamlessly smooth, giving 101 horsepower and 98 lb. ft. of torque. While it is true that it is not as smooth and quiet in operation as some other direct-injection modern engines, it does connect you with the car quite nicely, and it tends to eat up ground ferociously if asked to do so. It’s not too buzzy so that it gets tiring. An optional 6th gear might be even better, but again this might have to wait for the Abarth version. Speaking of which, the new 695 Abarth, with a turbocharged engine unit wholly derived from the 500 exhibits a whopping 178 horsepower and 199ft. lb. of torque. There has even been a 234hp version in Europe.
There are 4 models available here in the USA, 3 of the coupe and one convertible which is a bit more like a giant sunroof. The Pop, Sport, and Lounge are (bottom to top) the 3 models, all with nicely equipped and priced from about $15.5K to about $19.5K.
The car weighs anywhere from 2368 lbs. to 2434 lbs. which makes it about 200lbs. lighter than a Mini but with 20 less horsepower than the Mini’s 1.6 liter engine. At 11.6 feet long the Fiat 500 is about 7 inches shorter than a Mini, and also about 6 inches narrower. In my opinion, the Mini is fine driving car but without the ride quality of the 500. Rule out a comparison to the Cooper S until the Abarth version arrives, but the naturally aspirated Mini is a lovely car and you can’t go wrong with one if you so choose. I find the Mini’s instruments a bit too goofy with the center mounted pod, but not everyone is taken aback by this. The stripped, base Mini will set you back $20.1K, about $600 more than the top of the line 500 Lounge.
The Cinquecento arrives at a time when money is scarce, but apparently not as scarce as a job. Tasked with the responsibility of carrying the entire Fiat brand, this little car is after all, only one style of car. Minicars have always been a tough sell in the US, and perhaps the weight of the brand will be too much for any one model to carry. At this point, the Mini has 4 separate models, for example. In addition, the price of fuel is fairly high, but obviously not high enough to depose the Ford F150 pickup truck from being the top selling vehicle in the US. The best Ford F150 gets about 22mpg, 2/3 the fuel economy of a Fiat 500, not bad really for a vehicle of that size and capability. I’d advise parking the truck and driving the Fiat. It would pay for itself eventually besides being a lot more fun to operate.
Fiat has plans to build a line of Chrysler cars here in the US that are basically just American designs over Fiat platforms, starting next year with a new Dodge subcompact. This offers some other opportunities to own and drive an Italian car if the new 500 is too small for your hauling needs.