The all-new 2012 Fiat 500 ushers in the return of the Fiat brand to North America.
FIAT 500 Video Review
There was once a car so small it made the Mini seem like a Big. That car was the Fiat 500, or Cinquecento en Italiano, and it left such an indelible impression during its 18-year lifespan that Fiat performed a Mini-like resurrection to it three years ago. Now, with Fiat purchasing Chrysler last year, the 500 was chosen to be the model that reintroduces the Fiat brand to North America.
While the original 500 was the size of a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, the 2012 Fiat 500 looks far more like a regular car -- albeit a tiny one. Compared to a Mini Cooper, it is 7 inches shorter in overall length and 2 inches narrower. However, it is also more than 4 inches taller, allowing for an elevated seating position that not only increases visibility but creates more interior legroom.
Should you want some sun, the 500C convertible (a.k.a. Cabrio) may be to your liking. It maintains the 500's side roof structure, but the center portion is replaced by a power-sliding cloth piece that stacks atop the flip-up trunk. Imagine a cross between a Porsche 911 Targa and an automatic pool cover. The upside is reduced wind and the ability to lower the roof at speeds up to 60 mph -- the downside is horrible rear visibility with the roof lowered.
At the start of this model year there was just one engine offered: a 1.4-liter 101-horsepower four-cylinder attached to either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. No, that doesn't sound like a lot of power (and it isn't), but at only 2,350 pounds, the Fiat weighs 218 pounds less than the 121-hp base Cooper, which manages to be reasonably sprightly. Those looking for more mechanical joy in their little Italian should consider the hot-rod 500 Abarth, which debuted later in the model year. Wielding a 160-hp turbocharged engine, a sport-tuned suspension, upgraded brakes and sport seats, the 500 Abarth has the goods to give the Cooper S competition a good run.
Like the Mini Cooper, the 2012 Fiat 500 promises lots of character and personalization in a price category not usually known for those traits. It's also competitively equipped, with a base 500 listing for about four grand less than a base Mini Cooper hatchback, and more practical than choices like the Scion iQ and Smart Fortwo. While you might want to check out more traditional choices like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Mazda 2 as they offer more room for similar money, the Fiat 500 is a solid pick for a (very) small car with lots of personality.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Fiat 500 is a two-door subcompact hatchback available as a hardtop or 500C convertible. Both body styles are available in Pop and Lounge trim levels, while the hatchback adds a Sport midgrade trim.
Standard equipment on the 500 Pop includes 15-inch steel wheels and chrome-trimmed wheel covers, keyless entry, full power accessories, heated mirrors, air-conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-only steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Convenience package (standard on the 500C) adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Fiat's Blue&Me Bluetooth phone connectivity and an iPod/USB audio interface. The Bose Premium Audio package adds satellite radio along with an upgraded six-speaker system and subwoofer.
The Fiat 500 Sport gains 16-inch alloy wheels, firmer suspension tuning, retuned steering, slightly different styling, a roof spoiler, foglamps, sport seats, cloth/vinyl sport upholstery and the Pop's two optional packages. Satellite radio is a separate option, however. The Safety & Convenience package (automatic transmission required) includes automatic climate control, a compact spare tire and heated front seats.
The 500 Lounge reverts to the Pop's mechanical tuning and includes its optional packages as well. Also included are 15-inch alloy wheels, exterior chrome accents, foglamps, a fixed glass roof (hatchback only) and upgraded cloth upholstery. The Convenience Group adds rear parking sensors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and heated front seats. The Luxury package adds leather upholstery and upgraded trim. A sunroof and an integrated TomTom navigation system are optional on both the Sport and the Lounge. Dealer-installed accessories like interior ambient lighting and exterior graphics are also available.
The 500 Abarth is for the most part equipped similarly to the Sport but ups performance with a turbocharged engine, an electronic limited-slip differential, adjustable stability control, firmer suspension calibration, quicker steering and a tuned exhaust. The Abarth also has the expected exterior and interior tweaks, including unique front and rear fascias, Abarth graphics/emblems, aggressively bolstered sport seats, a sport steering wheel and red accent stitching throughout the cockpit. Options essentially mirror those of the Sport, as leather seating and a navigation system are among the Abarth's available features.
Powertrains and Performance
Apart from the Abarth, all Fiat 500s are powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 101 hp and 98 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the Pop and the Sport. A six-speed automatic is standard on the Lounge and optional on the other trims.
In Edmunds performance testing, a manual-equipped Fiat 500 Sport went from zero to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds with the manual transmission -- about 1.5 seconds slower than a base Mini. An automatic-equipped 500C hit 60 mph in a rather slow 12.4 seconds. EPA-estimated fuel economy stands at an excellent 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined with the manual transmission. This drops to 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the automatic, which is still thrifty, but worse than almost every competitor.
The 500 Abarth is powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter four that makes 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is the sole transmission offered. In Edmunds testing, the Abarth sprinted to 60 mph in a quick 7.1 seconds.
The 2012 Fiat 500 comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock disc brakes, a driver knee airbag, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In Edmunds brake testing, a 500 Sport came to a stop from 60 mph in an impressively short 115 feet. Oddly enough, the 500 Abarth took longer at 123 feet (though in fairness that was on a slightly damp test day) while a 500C Lounge stopped in a still solid 124 feet.
In government crash tests, the 500 received three (out of five) stars for overall crash protection, with four stars for overall frontal protection and a disappointing two stars for overall side protection. However, it should be noted that side protection for the driver was five stars -- it was the rear side rating of two stars that dragged down the overall score.
Interior Design and Special Features
While the Fiat 500's retro styling screams "Mini fighter," its interior raises the decibels even further. It doesn't possess as many customization options and accessories as its British archrival, but the 500 does offer snazzy two-tone color schemes and plenty of neat little design cues. It also has a more straightforward control layout than the form-over-function Mini. However, the available "Blue & Me" voice-activated iPod control is practically unusable, leaving you to use the standard auxiliary jack.
As for interior quality, the Fiat is not quite up to the Mini's level. There are more hard surfaces, but compared to other cars in its modest price range, they are pleasingly textured and generally higher in quality.
Other than the Smart Fortwo, the Fiat 500 is the smallest car sold in the United States. Nonetheless, the high-mounted front seats allow for an impressive amount of legroom even for tall drivers. Sadly, however, those same tall drivers will find their heads grazing the headliner should they get a car with the available sunroof. Headroom is always tight in the backseat, as is legroom. Unlike most other convertibles, the 500C does not suffer diminished interior space. Rearward visibility with the top fully retracted is poor, however.
Behind the hatchback's backseat you'll find 9.5 cubic feet of luggage space, considerably more than what's offered by the Mini. Lower the backseat in the hatchback and although the load floor isn't completely flat, you'll have 30.2 cubic feet of space available, or about 25 percent more than you'll get in a Cooper hatchback.
It may be one of the slowest cars on sale, but the non-Abarth Fiat 500 is willing and eager to pull its weight (especially with the easy-to-drive manual transmission), and exhibits more pleasing noises than other underpowered subcompacts. The steering is rather devoid of feel and numb on center, but press the Sport button on the dash and the 500's steering firms up pleasingly. This is especially true for the 500 Sport, which we think is the model to get given its more responsive handling and ride quality that still betters a Mini Cooper's.
A burbling, snarling exhaust note and a slick gearbox add to the fun of blasting around in the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. Its turbocharged engine's robust power band translates into plenty of usable oomph in the real world. Although a 6th gear would be nice, powering past freeway dawdlers is a breeze -- step into it and the Abarth scoots past. Driven briskly on a winding road, the Abarth takes the corners eagerly, aided by its quick steering and sticky tires. But when pushed harder, it's not as buttoned-down and composed as a Cooper, as it tends to bob around a bit during quick transitions over undulating pavement. As with the other 500 models, however, it also provides a more compliant ride than its archrival.
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