New & Used Fiat 500: In Depth
2014 Fiat 500e - Quick Drive, September 2014Enlarge Photo
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The Fiat 500 is a subcompact hatchback that revived the Fiat name in the U.S. market, fully a quarter-century after the brand had withdrawn from U.S. sales.
While it's caught on reasonably well, the 500 model line--which includes turbo, Abarth, and electric models--has been joined by an unrelated, less popular 500L hatchback, and soon will get a crossover 500X companion, also unrelated mechanically.
Built in Mexico, with a small four-cylinder engine manufactured in Michigan, the Fiat 500 that went on sale in the 2012 model year was the first vehicle from the combined global maker now known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Like the MINI Cooper it competes with, almost model for model, the Fiat 500 harkens back to a beloved national automotive icon from the Sixties. In this case, it’s the Fiat 500 that was built from 1957 to 1975. And like the MINI Cooper, the new model is larger, faster, far better equipped, and immeasurably safer. The Fiat 500 is not, in other words, a competitor for econobox models like the Hyundai Accent or Toyota Yaris; it’s a lifestyle choice, a style accessory that also happens to be fun to drive and easy to park in tight urban areas.
All gas-powered 500 models use 1.4-liter four-cylinder engines that Fiat now builds in North America, shared with a growing array of new models from Dodge and Jeep. Fuel economy figures land at 30 mpg city, 38 highway—similar to those for the MINI Cooper. In early drives of the 500, we found the steering to be particularly enjoyable and lively, although straight-line performance was lackluster in the base model and a cramped interior plus big doses of engine and road noise rounded out the picture. The 500 has some of the most cramped front-seat quarters of any new production car, though.
You can get a few more features in the Fiat 500 than you'll find in most other small cars, like leather heated seats and rear parking sensors, and there are some 500,000 different build combinations thanks to plenty of possibilities for trims, colors, and accessories. The basic Fiat 500 three-door hatchback is available in four trim levels: Pop, Sport, Lounge, and Gucci; Convertible models are only offered in Pop, Lounge, and Gucci trims.
The three-door hatchback was later joined by more variants. The Cabrio, a convertible of sorts with a roll-back cloth roof, retains the sides of the hatchback. An Abarth hot-rod can be had in either hatch or Cabrio form. To please those in the middle, Fiat also added a 500T model, which uses a toned-down turbocharged engine that's not as nutty as the Abarth but offers better acceleration than the standard 500.
The Fiat 500 Abarth is the hot-hatch version, competing with the MINI Cooper S, courtesy of a turbocharged engine that puts out 160 horsepower, stiffer suspension, and 16-inch sport wheels. Special Koni Frequency Selective Dampers plus plenty of other dynamic and appearance upgrades make this one of the year's most enjoyable drives, for those who enjoy nimble minicars. Given Fiat's hugely popular TV ads with model Catrinel Menghia that launched the little hot rod, the Abarth may be the best-known 500 right now.
For buyers who want Abarth performance in a more subtle package--no dressy body add-ons or scorpion badges--the 500T model uses a slightly less powerful version of its turbocharged engine in an incognito body. The Turbo is given away by a small opening in the front fascia, almost like a slit for a cartoon car's mouth, which feeds air to the intercooler. 500Ts ride better than the Abarth, and are altogether more relaxed in their handling, but still offer adequate power to charge on-ramps.
As of 2013, there's also the Fiat 500e electric car. It's sold only in small numbers--and only in California and Oregon. That's because it's a "compliance car" required for Chrysler-Fiat to meet California's zero-emission vehicle regulations. That's a shame, because it's fun to drive and perhaps the best-handling of all the electric car conversions produced by major automakers.