- Striking, cheerful design
- Small but perky engines
- Sexy Abarth exhaust note
- Remarkably stylish interior
- Zillions of features, options
- High, short front seats
- Miniscule rear seat
- Base car isn't that quick
- Gas mileage only average
- Electric version only for CA
The 2016 Fiat 500 remains distinctive and stylish, with the Abarth and Turbo models scoring high for driver excitement and the electric 500e perhaps the best all-round version (but only for Californians).
Entering its fifth model year in the U.S., the 2016 Fiat 500 minicar retains its mix of quirky cuteness and practical fun, with a handful of minor updates that include an improved infotainment system, new colors, and a new trim level. Otherwise, the little three-door 500 hatchback and its 500c cabriolet sibling with the cloth roll-top continue as excellent city cars for tiny spaces. But it's their distinctive looks and fun-to-drive character that has kept them popular, in an ever-growing array of vehicles, models, and trims.
This review covers only the original Fiat 500, the 500c cabriolet, the 500 Abarth hot-rod versions with their memorable exhaust ntoe, and the 500e all-electric model. The later expansions of the "Fiat 500" line, including the 500L tall wagon and the 500X crossover utility vehicle, are reviewed separately. But the original three-door and cabrio are the Fiat 500s that make owners and onlookers alike smile. The 500 Cabrio offers open-air runabout style without the hassle of putting down a full cloth top, and the 500e is an amazingly perky and sweet-handling electric car that's regrettably unavailable to drivers outside California.
Fiat hit a home run when it revived the 500 name in an all-new car on the original Cinquecentro's 50th birthday in 2007, though it took several more years for the new Fiat 500 to reach North America. The 500's very small footprint and almost toy-like dimensions have already carved out an impression of the 500 for most Americans who've seen one. But there's a huge amount of character packed into its small dimensions, and it can't be mistaken for any other car. The exterior lines manage to pull off the short, tall hatchback proportions without looking at all awkward. Inside, the 500 produces high style out of relatively low-cost materials—mixing body-color panels, a simple instrument cluster, and Italian interior design in a pleasing way that, again, couldn't be any other car.
Within its tiny footprint, the Fiat 500 maxes out the interior space—but it's still very short on passenger space compared to, say, a Ford Fiesta, a Chevy Spark, even a Mini Cooper. And occupants will suffer from truly minuscule rear-seat space, as well as the odd ergonomics of the driver's seat. Seats are well-formed, but they're a bit on the short and firm side and we wish they didn't push up so high, limiting head room. If you truly need a rear seat, try the Fiat 500L tall wagon, which has surprising interior space, but shares very little except a model name with the three-door 500.
Except for the snorting turbocharged Abarth edition, most Fiat 500s aren't particularly perky or peppy. You can get most of the Abarth's performance in the 500 Turbo model, which forgoes the badges and boy-racer styling of the Abarth while offering a lot more power than the standard 101-hp 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. The Turbo boosts that to 135 hp, more than halfway to the 160-hp Abarth itself.
Especially in its first three gears, the Abarth's raucous exhaust note and ample front-wheel power make it sheer fun to drive, assisted by a more firmly tuned suspension that manages not to damage the comfort much. It's still not the car we'd pick for long highway trips, but the ride quality is quite good for a lightweight, short-wheelbase car. Our driving time has exclusively been spent in manual versions, so far; but the 500 Turbo, Abarth, and Abarth Cabrio models all now offer the option of a 6-speed automatic transmission as well as their standard 5-speed manual gearboxes.
For 2016, the latest UConnect 5.0 provides a 5.0-inch touchscreen for controlling the AM/FM radio, an integrated CD player, and optional satellite radio and navigation systems. Last year, the instrument cluster was replaced with a 7.0-inch LCD display on all models except the base Pop 500. There's also a new trim level, the 500 Easy, which falls above the Pop, but below the Sport and Lounge versions.
Base 500 Pop models include a 5-speed manual transmission, 15-inch wheels, air conditioning, a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack, power windows/locks/mirrors, and cruise control. Stepping up to the Easy level gets cloth buckets, UConnect 5.0 and body-colored side view mirrors. With Sport models you get larger 16-inch wheels, a fixed glass roof, and a sport-tuned suspension and sport-bolstered seats. Fiat 500 Sport models revert to 15-inch wheels and hang on to the glass roof but add a 6-speed automatic and rear park assist, along with satellite radio, premium speakers and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Remember that most of these trim levels can be applied to both the 500 three-door and the 500c Cabrio. The Abarth is its own trim level, in effect, but given the number of powertrains, body styles, and trim levels, there are a lot of ways to customize a Fiat 500. And that's even before the Fiat 500e, a very nice little electric car with all the personality of the standard 500 and a battery-electric drivetrain with an EPA-rated range of 84 miles. It's only sold in California, unfortunately.
Despite being fairly small, the 500 isn't really all that fuel efficient. The most efficient model is the base 500 equipped with a 5-speed manual, which rates 31 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined. On the other end of the scale, the two turbocharged models paired with the 6-speed automatic come in at only 24/32/27 mpg—whereas that Honda Fit, which can actually hold four adults and their goods, is rated at 36 mpg combined (when fitted with a continuously variable transmission).