2012 FIAT 500 Long Term Road Test


2012 Fiat 500 Sport: The Miracle of Hill-Start Assist

September 26, 2011

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It turns out that the best theft-deterrent you can buy for your car these days is a manual transmission.

Only about 8 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. are equipped with a manual transmission these days compared to 22 percent in 1985. And this means that fewer and fewer people each year know how to drive a car with a manual transmission.

So it makes you wonder why anyone would choose the five-speed manual transmission over the six-speed automatic for the Fiat 500. This goes double if you live in the suburb of L.A. where I do, which has hills kind of the way San Francisco has hills.

But there’s no scent of burning clutch material after driving the Fiat 500 around my town.

You can be stopped on a hill at an angle that makes you think the car is pointed toward the heavens like a passenger jet on takeoff, and yet there’s no roll back when you start doing that three-pedal shuffle to get going when the traffic light turns green. And no roll back means no fear of punching the grille of the car behind you, no desperate clutch slip as you struggle to engage the clutch just the right amount to build forward momentum without stalling the engine.

Turns out that the Fiat 500 has hill-start assist, just like so many vehicles do these days — full-size pickup trucks as well as small subcompacts.

What happens is, the car maintains brake pressure for a short period of time after you lift your foot from the brake pedal and begin to apply the throttle to coordinate the getaway with the clutch. It’s one of those miracles of electronics, and you can learn more about it from HowStuffWorks.com .

Of course, it’s not a total miracle, as it most of the time these things apparently are calibrated to keep your vehicle in place with the brakes on slopes that have no more than gradient of 3 percent, and there’s a hill only a half block away from my house that’s so steep it makes bicycle riders weep and pedestrians faint.

But thanks to hill-start assist, the Fiat 500 with its manual transmission is usually as easy to drive around my town as an old Volkswagen Beetle. As Deputy Managing Editor Caroline Pardilla has already pointed out, this is the right car with which to teach someone to drive with a stick shift. The Mazda 2 would be at the other end of the spectrum, of course.

Don’t be looking for any great revival in manual transmission usage, though. A manual transmission used to be a lot cheaper than an automatic and also offer much better fuel economy besides, but the difference between the two is far less these days. Plus the new breed of affordable dual-clutch automated manuals combines the no-slip powertrain efficiency of a manual transmission with the automated clutch engagement of an automatic.

But at least a manual transmission has a fun factor that you can’t beat, since you always feel like you’re operating the car instead of it operating you. Of course, you could say the same about driving a tractor (although even tractors have automatic transmissions these days).

Oh well, at least there’s that theft-deterrent thing.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 8,275

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Edmunds Insurance Estimator

The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 FIAT 500 in VA is:

$135 per month*
* Explanation
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