2012 Fiat 500 Sport: We Let the Readers Drive
May 30, 2011
A few weeks ago, we had the bright idea to let a couple of our readers drive a 2012 Lexus LFA. It went well enough (read: I wasn't kidnapped) that we decided to do it again, but with something decidedly less expensive: our 2012 Fiat 500 Sport.
This was an interesting one as most Americans are still, on the whole, unfamiliar with very small cars and with the exception of some car guys who've been around the block a few times, even fewer are familiar with the Fiat brand. So we put the call out onto our Twitter to find two people in the L.A. area who wanted to drive a Fiat.
Emily and Joe struck a chord right away. For one, they came as a pair -- that makes it easy on our part -- and second, Emily was actually looking to buy a new small car and the Fiat 500 was on the list. Within days, they were in our offices to drive the Fiat.
The Fiat 500 was not what I expected. Yes, I knew it was tiny and what the ladies would call "Cute", but it was not a typical car in that price range. Walking up to it for the first time makes you a little nervous 'cause it is so tiny. It was next to a Ford Ranger and the Fiat made the ranger look like an F250. But once inside everything changes. It seems so much bigger when you are inside it. Even crammed in the back, which if Emily wasn't 5 foot 1 (and a half, she'd kill me if I didn't point out the half) I probably would not have had anyplace to put my legs, it still felt bigger than it is. Driving it was also a huge surprise. This car is no Mustang GT or Golf GTi by any means, but it is fun! The car always felt planted on our drive up the PCH. Again, I may sound like a broken record, but it felt like a much bigger car! Also, I dig a chunky soft steering wheel and the 500 has a great one. Grippy and wrapped in leather. better than some high end cars.
There are some negative points. The open sunroof is noisy as hell. The seat height adjuster didn't seem to raise or lower the seat at all and felt cheap. I was warned about the radio interface...I tried to play with it but just got confused. And if you don't know the person in the front passenger seat when you get in, by the end of the trip you will be close, close friends. (BTW, Mike has soft knees. I think he exfoliates).
Would I buy one? Yes, in a second, but 85% of my driving is in the city and that's where this car excels. If I had a 75 mile freeway commute to work everyday, I'd buy something else. But since I usually drive and park in L.A., sign me up! And a huge shout out and thank you to Michael Magrath and everyone at Edmunds for letting Emily and I steal their Fiat for a day!
....but Joe was just along to see what a Fiat was like, Emily might want one of these, here's what she has to say.
When I saw the Fiat 500 for the first time, I was surprised by how small it was. Now, I knew it was going to be small. I just didn't realize HOW small. Parked next to a compact car, it makes the compact look large. Looking under the hood only underscored this impression; everything was compressed and stacked on top of itself. For a girl who can barely figure out where to put the oil, it would definitely take me some time to figure out the engine layout. It certainly was like none other I had ever seen.
Once in the driver's seat, though, the car didn't feel quite so small -- at least not to me. In fact, I had a hard time reaching the clutch to push it in fully -- even with the seat as far forward as it would go. Caveat: I am short at 5 foot 1. This would have prevented me from purchasing a manual. Otherwise, the front seat seemed sized just right for me. Even pulled all the way closest to the steering wheel, I didn't feel as if my nose was pressed into the center of it. For the other passengers, however, the front passenger seat seemed a bit small and while the back seat didn't feel too small while sitting in it (for me or the other passengers), getting in or out of it was a real operation. I had to back my way out -- not exactly a graceful way to exit.
Seating space aside, the inside felt sleek, European, modern and expensive. However I have since read and heard that various knobs and handles have had a tendency to break off very easily. Noting the problems that Fiat has had in this area in the past would give me a moment's pause. Another moment of pause was the lack of convenient place to put my purse if there is a passenger in the car. While that may seem like an inconsequential problem that would only affect women, I would say that lots of men carry bags and it is nice to have access to your wallet while you are driving instead of having it stuck in the trunk (whose size and layout is about what you would expect and thoroughly acceptable given that the seats fold down.)
Another issue I had with the Fiat was the sunroof. The cover for the sunroof was not solid. It was like a piece of partially sheer curtain. In Southern California, this equals a very, very, very warm car. In addition, when the sunroof was open it was very loud and would certainly inhibit conversation or the ability to listen to the radio. While my thoughts can be entertaining, they are not enough to get me through a long drive.
Driving the Fiat 500 was a fun experience. It was kicky, responsive, had good maneuverability and felt like driving a much higher end car. I liked driving it a lot. It would take some time to learn how to check the blind spot, however, because the positioning of the window made it impossible to see anything if you turned your head to check if there was a car there. You would have to rely solely on the side mirror -- which did have an addition to the mirror that extended your view around the back of the car, like large semi trucks have. I definitely didn't have the hang of that during the test drive, but it could potentially be a very useful and safety enhancing feature.
Now all of this is really only a long way of getting to the real issue: would I buy this car or not. Yes, I am in the market for a compact car in this price range. Yes, I was very excited to drive the Fiat 500. Yes, I really enjoyed driving the Fiat. It was fun, felt expensive, and it's funky styling made the Mini Cooper look like yesterday's news. However, I think I will most likely go in another direction given a few key deciding points: First of all, I am concerned with Fiat's track record in the US and lack of track record in the US with this model. My last new car was a lemon and I'm overly concerned with purchasing a reliable and easy to fix car. Secondly, while it's compact size makes me feel like it was built for someone "me" sized, I worry about the lack of safety record for this vehicle in the US. Thirdly, the fact that the car would be a sauna in the summer -- which is pretty much most of the year in Southern California -- concerns me. Traffic is bad enough without broiling in the process. And finally, the car just didn't "sing" to me. I know this is an ineffable quality, but it is powerful enough to make all of the little irritations with the car go away. This may not help anyone else out there, for which I apologize, but the best thing to do is to drive it yourself and see if it's song is loud enough for you to hear above the sunroof. Happy Driving -- Cause it's going to be fun! Thanks to Michael Magrath and Edmunds. It was a great test drive.