The little lovable Fiat 500 is now in its sixth successful year, offering big character in a tiny footprint. The three-door hatchback or cabriolet draws many adjectives, like cute, quirky, fun, charming, disarming, original and more. However it’s not entirely original, having been famously inspired by the legendary 1957 Cinquecento that skittered like cockroaches all over Italy, back in the day.
The Fiat 500 competes with the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Spark, Hyundai Accent, Mazda2, and others, even including the Mini Cooper.
It seats four, with the two rear passengers totally squeezed. It offers nimble and responsive handling, while feeling bigger than it is because of its high seating position. Amazingly, the ride isn’t harsh despite its super-short 90.6-inch wheelbase and old-school torsion beam rear axle. The acceleration is either lame or zippy, depending on the engine.
For 2017, there are just two engines, a 1.4-liter making 101 horsepower, and a turbocharged version making 160 horsepower in the sporty, snarling Abarth 500. Each comes with a 5-speed manual gearbox or 6-speed automatic. What’s lost from the lineup is last year’s turbo model making an in-between 135 horsepower.
There are only three models: the Pop, Lounge and Abarth, each of which comes as a hatchback or Cabrio with a cloth top that rolls back. There’s also a 500L wagon and 500X crossover, which we review separately, and less favorably, as the character and individuality is lost as the 500 expands.
Also a 500e all-electric car, which we’ve found to be the most fun electric car of all. When it first came out, Fiat was offering a lease for $1000 down and $139 per month, and we’re sorry we didn’t snag one for our 16-year-old to drive to high school.
The Fiat 500 with base engine and 5-speed gets an EPA-rated 31/40 miles per gallon City/Highway, 34 mpg Combined, while the turbo gets 30 mpg Combined with the manual, and just 27 mpg with the automatic. Premium fuel is recommended, even for the non-turbo. For the size of the car, the savings in fuel cost is unimpressive.
You won’t be impressed if you hit a telephone pole in your Fiat 500, either. It got a Poor rating from the IIHS in the small-overlap frontal crash test. The other crash ratings were better, with four stars overall from the NHTSA, including four stars for frontal impact and five stars for side impact. The IIHS gave the 500 its top Good score in most tests. There are seven standard airbags: dual front, side and curtain, plus a driver knee airbag to come between you and the telephone pole.
The Fiat 500 Pop hatchback ($16,995) and Cabriolet ($$20,395) include cloth upholstery, air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, CD player with audio jack, 15-inch painted aluminum wheels. (All prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Fiat 500 Lounge ($20,395) gets leather upholstery, 7.0-inch LCD display replacing the instrument cluster, fixed glass roof, chrome body and interior accents, leather-wrapped steering wheel with controls, and other features.
The Fiat 500 Abarth ($22,575) features the turbocharged engine, suspension tweaks, black 16-inch alloy wheels, and rear parking sensors.
Options include the latest UConnect system with 5.0-inch touchscreen, a power sunroof, navigation, different wheels, and a host of appearance tweaks. No rearview camera is available for any model.
The Fiat 500 manages the hatchback design without looking awkward. Despite its inherent uprightness, the 500 can look almost svelte. There’s a certain amount of bulk that comes with crash requirements, but they’re buried in the lower third of the body. The sides slope upward, the rear glass slopes forward, presenting a modern twist to the classic Cinquecento shape that’s now 60 years old.
Button-like headlamps and a thin mustache trim bar add character to face of the 500.
The Cabrio maintains the same roofline, because only the flat panel in the roof is fabric, offered in several colors, including a couple startling ones. Because the doors and rails are unchanged from the hatchback, with a trunk lid replacing the rear hatch, the Cabrio is structurally rigid.
The Fiat 500 offers a stylish interior from inexpensive materials. Creative Italian design takes a simple and clean instrument panel and adds bits and pieces of body-colored metal, making the final effect pleasing to the eye. It combines playful with practical in a manner that German, Japanese, Korean and American designers must envy.
Italian designers got as much interior space as they could out of the car’s dimensions, but it still falls short compared to the Fiesta, Spark, or Mini. The seats have a good contour but are short, firm, and high. That makes the car feel bigger than it is, from the view out the windshield, but also makes it feel smaller because there’s less headroom.
And it’s miniscule in the rear. That’s why Fiat came out with the 500L, which has excellent room in back. But it’s boring, and doesn’t share the spirit of the 500.
The base 101-horsepower engine is not what we’d call perky. To get the most out of it, sometimes merely what you need, you have to drive it like an Italian. Repeatedly run it to redline. Fortunately it likes that (as does the frisky Ford Fiesta); it’s flexible, lively, and even shows a bubbly enthusiasm for such abuse. It doesn’t feel harsh up there. In fact there’s a lively rasp that appears at 3000 rpm.
But even wringing it to redline (or ringing it to redline) won’t get you to sixty miles per hour in any time less than 10 seconds. And if you have a passenger, not even a fat one, think twice about passing uphill on a two-lane. Get a good running start.
The meaty electric power steering sometimes feels like there’s no power-assist at all. This isn’t necessarily bad, just not direct or nuanced. We got seat time in a Pop with the Sport package, bigger 16-inch wheels and stiffer suspension, and the ride still wasn’t harsh.
In the racy Abarth, the wider tires give it more grip and confidence in corners, without affecting the ride The tweaked suspension increases the quickness of the handling and reduces body roll.
The Abarth’s 5-speed manual transmission has closer gear ratios than the Pop, and in the first three gears you can really feel it. Your hand feels good on the 5-speed lever, because the shifting is light and precise, but your left foot feels awkward, as the clutch pedal has a long stroke and travels a bit before it grabs. The small footwell doesn’t help.
There’s a 6-speed automatic transmission available, never mind that it would be a sin to own an Abarth with an automatic. But if you do, there’s a sport mode to sharpen the shifting and throttle response.
The gearbox in the Abarth makes you want to hammer the throttle. Which you want to do anyhow, because of the remarkably raucous exhaust note. The Abarth is a car for people who want to be seen, attracting attention not only with its cheeky aggressive song, but with its bodywork and stripes.
The Pop is a good value; all it needs is a set of cool wheels and it’s as much fun as you can have in a new car for the money. The Abarth, thanks to reduced prices, is now a contender, with its turbocharged 160 horsepower, tight gearbox, quick handling and acceptable ride. But because of the tiny rear seat, the Fiat 500 is really only a car for a single person or couple.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with staff reports by The Car Connection.