The Fiat 500 is five years old, which means it has caught up to its personality. Owning a Fiat 500 is like having a five-year-old boy (or tomboy) at his cutest and most fun. After fun, the adjective that’s probably used most to describe this itty-bitty Italian car is quirky, but we don’t see that. It works, on its small scale, in both looks and performance. There’s big character packed in its small body, and there’s no mistaking it for anything else. While it gets an EPA-estimated 34 miles per gallon Combined. What’s quirky about that?
The Volkswagen Beetle was quirky, because of its looks, and because it was so slow. The Fiat 500 is just cool. It’s not called by an insect, it’s called “Cinquecento.”
The Fiat 500 comes as a three-door hatchback or cabriolet with a cloth top that slides back, hassle-free. We like it. Eighty percent of the sun and open air, 20 percent of the inconvenience of a convertible.
Of course, there’s an Abarth version, which is over the top, and we like that, too. Very Italian, nothing held back, turbocharged ’til it blows out its ears, with 60-percent more horsepower, or rather blows out its exhaust, a deep and unique tuned system that shouts “Lookatme!” with every blip of the throttle. While it sucks gas, getting just 27 miles per gallon Combined.
But the Fiat 500 lineup isn’t done impressing. There’s also a Fiat 500e, which we can unequivocally say is the most fun and quintessential electric car we have ever driven. With an EPA-rated range of 87 miles, and quickness and balance that’s actually better than the regular 500, the Fiat 500e can’t be beat for an around-town commuter car. The bad news is it’s only sold in California. So take a California vacation, before the state dries up or washes away, and bring home a new baby called Cinquecento Electrico.
The Fiat 500 does a good job of getting the most interior space out of its footprint, but it still has considerably less than a Ford Fiesta, Chevy Spark, or MINI Cooper. The base engine is an overachieving 1.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 101 horsepower. It’s fun to work it, which you have to do to run with the pack.
Even more fun is working the Fiat 500 Turbo that makes 135 horsepower out of the same engine. The turbocharged Abarth makes 160 horsepower, but maybe you’re not comfortable shouting your presence. The 500 Turbo gives you satisfying speed while flying under the radar. Plus it’s a lot cheaper than the Abarth.
Standard transmission is a 5-speed manual, but a 6-speed automatic is available in the 500 Turbo, Abarth, and Abarth Cabrio.
For 2016, Fiat 500 updates include new colors and trim, and upgraded infotainment, a 5.0-inch touchscreen for audio and navigation. And there’s a new model, the 2016 Fiat 500 Easy, one level up from the base 500 Pop. Above the Easy, there are 500 Sport and 500 Lounge models. There’s your quirky, the names.
We like the Pop. When the 500 first came out, a friend of ours bought a Pop for $14k out the door, a clean titanium color, put some cool wheels and tires on it, and it’s the most enjoyment and satisfaction, per dollar, that he’s ever gotten out of a car.
The 2016 Fiat 500 Pop ($16,995) comes with a 5-speed manual transmission, 15-inch wheels, air conditioning, CD player, power windows/locks/mirrors, and cruise control.
The Sport ($19,700) adds the turbocharger, 16-inch wheels, glass roof, and sports suspension and seats.
The Lounge ($20,395) goes back to smaller wheels, and uses a 6-speed automatic transmission, with upgraded speakers and leather. Then there’s the 160-horsepower hot-rod Abarth ($22,575).
There are a lot of ways to customize a Fiat 500. One is the decidedly retro 1957 Edition, baby blue with ’50s-looking wheels and old-time Fiat badging. But there’s nothing retro about the premium leather upholstery, in brown or ivory.
The Fiat 500 might technically be a hatchback, but it has none of the awkward lines. Don’t tell anyone we said this, but from some angles it looks almost svelte. Detroit designers get credit for pulling that off, because there was so much safety structure they had to add, they were dealing with much more heft than the European version. It ran over there from 2007 to 2012, before Chrysler heavily modified the 500 (under the surface) to sell in North America.
The headlamps are cute as a button. Because they look like buttons. In profile, the sides slope up and the rear glass slopes forward. It looks appropriate for today, while still reflecting the iconic shape of the original 1957 Cinquecento.
The 500c Cabrio is a winner. It’s the same roofline, with a fabric top (available in basic and vivid colors) that slides back, like the ’57 did. This provides structural rigidity, as the roof frame remains intact. The passengers get the sun and air, while feeling more secure.
The materials inside are basic, but they’re done with style, so they look more upscale than they are. There’s an attractive and eye-catching mix of body-colored panels and clean instruments, an Italian composition. Like the body, the cabin is not like any other car. A quirky Nissan Juke might come closest.
However, some might see the interior style overstyled, not as bad as the Mini Cooper but maybe too much in that direction. But we think it merges playful and practical in a way that’s purely Italian. No German, Japanese, British, Korean or American car is likely to go there. Although it might be suggested that American designers already have, having done so much work on the 500.
For 2016, the UConnect 5.0 system interfaces with AM/FM radio (satellite optional), CD, and navigation. There’s a 7.0-inch LCD instrument display on models above the Pop. That’s partly why we like the Pop. Still, this instrument display makes sense, with layers of color and detail that draw your attention.
The front seats are comfortable, if a bit short and firm, and the driver’s seat seems too high, making him or her feel like a sardine in a can. But that’s nothing compared to the miniscule back seat.
Here’s where the Fiat 500L wagon comes in. We cover it in a separate review. The longer car solves the problem of interior space, while falling short in all the places where the 500 succeeds.
You can hope for snappier acceleration out of the Pop with the base 1.4-liter engine, which does over-achieve but only to the point where you start hoping for more. If you want to squeeze the most fun out of it, stay with the standard manual 5-speed and rev it to redline in every gear like the Italians do. The exhaust note begins to rasp at 3000 rpm, and shouts with enthusiasm up to redline. It feels like you’re getting to 60 mph in less than the reality of its 10 seconds.
Don’t expect too much when trying to pass uphill. Of course the Italians do it all the time, usually by getting a flat-out running start on the downhill before the uphill. And living like there is no tomorrow, defying the head-on crash with the truck coming the other direction. They need the additional safety structure that the North American version has.
Now we move up to the 135-horsepower Turbo, and everything changes. A 35 percent boost in horsepower is just what the doctor ordered. We take back what we said about hoping for more.
But if you still do, then welcome to the world of Abarth. It’s been around since at least 1957, the roots of the car, when there was a 750cc Fiat-Abarth racing car. The biggest and best team was owned by president Franklin Roosevelt’s son.
The 160-horsepower Abarth throws it all on the road. It’s somewhat twitchy with all that turbo power to the front wheels. Can’t get away from smallish wheels and a torsion beam rear axle, even with wider tires. It’s got stiffer shocks and springs, and feels it, but the ride is still okay. That stiffness actually makes the handling more nimble by limiting roll in the turns.
Abarth’s raucous exhaust, while trying to imitate the snarl of a pit bull (fairly successfully), comes across more in attitude like a yapping Chihuahua. The bite doesn’t back up the bark, not even with the horsepower.
The standard 5-speed manual shifts with light effort and precision, but the clutch action is problematic because there’s such a tiny box for your feet. To make it worse, the clutch pedal has a long stroke and high location.
A 6-speed automatic transmission is available in the Turbo, Abarth, and Abarth Cabrio. There is a Sport mode that sharpens the transmission shift points and throttle response.
The Fiat 500 corners with liveliness and flexibility, like the frisky Ford Fiesta but different. Its wheelbase of 90.6 inches is the same as the old Honda CRX sports car (still popular for racing). The electric power steering has a meaty bite, and heavy feel; it’s certainly not over-boosted.
The Sport model, with its larger 16-inch wheels and stiffer suspension, rides nearly as nice as the Pop.
The Fiat 500e electric model is just as exciting in its own way. It has better weight distribution, thanks to the 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that’s mounted low and rearward. The system makes 111 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque, so it’s every bit as quick as the base Pop, and clearly feels it. It has a range of 87 miles around town. We drove a 500e for one week, and found that the range at 60-65 mph was more like 50-55 miles. That’s without using the air conditioning. Range anxiety rules.
We like the Fiat 500. Run out and buy a Pop. Preferably a Turbo Pop. If you live in San Francisco, buy a 500e electrico.
Sam Moses filed this report.