2016 FIAT 500 Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 20, 2016

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.

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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).

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2016 FIAT 500

Styling

The 2016 Fiat 500 offers distinctive looks and a stylish flair that's instantly identifiable.

There's just something about the 2016 Fiat 500 that makes people smile, and it's been that way since it first appeared on North American roads in the spring of 2011. It's charming, disarming, and unique—and after the successful reintroduction of the Fiat brand, it couldn't have come from any other automaker.

Its designers have wrapped pert, upright styling and character-filled lines around a very small three-door hatchback, and used relatively inexpensive materials inside that manage to look far more stylish and upscale than they actually are.

The shape is tall and somewhat upright, yet the Fiat 500 somehow manages to approach svelte from certain angles. The car's lower third successfully hides the extra bulk needed for safety, while the combination of button-like headlamps, a "mustache" trim bar in front, upward-sloping sides, and forward-sloping rear glass results in a thoroughly modern design that pays homage to classic Cinquecento shape, which many young 500 buyers will have seen only in old Italian movies.

The 500c Cabrio preserves the same roofline, because only the uppermost flat roof panel is made of retractable fabric (available in quite a few color choices, including some that are quite startling). It too is an homage to the original 500c of half a century ago, though in this case, it's as much to preserve structural rigidity and keep passengers safe as it is to nod to the retro side.

Inside, the 500's interior could be seen as a little gimmicky or overstyled—just like that of the similarly retro Mini Cooper. The latest Mini has finally imposed some coherence on its formerly chaotic clutter of scattershot switches, knobs, levers, and dials, but the 500 still beats even the new Mini in simple elegance.

The simple concentric gauges on the 500 make intuitive sense, with layers of color and detail that draw your hand to touch them and your eyes to linger on them. Overall, the interior successfully blends playful and practical in a way that U.S., German, Japanese, and Korean designers can only envy.

Finally, as well as a lengthy list of options, customization opportunities, and colors—inside and out—there's the "1957 Edition" that's the most overtly retro version in the line. Most notable in the baby blue color, its 16-inch forged aluminum wheels come in retro body-color style, and the premium Marrone (brown) and Avorio (ivory) leather interior is set off by throwback Fiat badges inside and out.

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2016 FIAT 500

Performance

If you want speedy responses, pick the Abarth, Turbo, or electric Fiat 500, since the standard one has pint-sized performance.

The 2016 Fiat 500 lineup can appear bewildering, encompassing two body styles, four powertrains (three gasoline, one electric), and numerous trim levels, options, and accessories. Unless you're in California, the 500e electric model is off-limits. And the Abarth is a clear and distinct choice for those who want to be looked at every time they blip the throttle.

For buyers who are a tad more sedate than that, there are two engine options and two transmissions. Entry Fiat 500 models get a 101-horsepower 1.4-liter engine that's not quite as peppy or perky as you might expect in something with the 500's design. To get the most out of the base Fiat 500, you have to drive it like a European: Run it up to redline in each and every gear. There's a lively rasp as it rushes over 3,000 rpm, and it doesn't get too harsh as it rises higher through the rev range.

That's still not to imply the 500, in this configuration, is "fast," the 0-to-60-mph run takes about 10 seconds, but it's pleasing to wring through the paces, and it feels flexible and lively. Even if a bit short on power, 500s bubble over with enthusiasm, just as you'll find in the frisky Ford Fiesta. That said, with two aboard, you'd be ill advised to try passing uphill.

The Turbo models and their 135-hp engine are the ones that make good on the promises of the exterior. Its 35-percent power boost is readily apparent. Above that, it's the 160-horsepower Abarth that actually feels truly sporty, especially in the first three gears of this manual-transmission-only model. The Abarth also supplements that impression with an especially raucous exhaust note.

These days, the 500 Turbo, Abarth, and Abarth Cabrio models all offer the option of a 6-speed automatic transmission. The standard 5-speed manual's shifter action is light and precise enough, although the car's limited foot space doesn't help the clutch pedal's long stroke and high uptake point. On automatics, a Sport button that tightens up shift points and quickens the throttle feel.

The 500's electric power steering has a meaty bite, and can feel almost like unassisted steering at times, though it's never as direct and nuanced. The larger 16-inch wheels and stiffer suspension of the Sport don't produce the expected ride harshness from anything riding atop a wheelbase this short (90.6 inches, like the old Honda CRX).  Even in the sporty Abarth, however, ride quality is quite good for a lightweight, short-wheelbase car. Small tires and a torsion beam rear axle do make themselves known in tricky situations, although the Abarth is somewhat more confident all around due to more tire contact patch, while its suspension upgrades increase nimbleness by limiting body roll.

As for the Fiat 500e electric model, it delivers silent performance that's just as thrilling as the gasoline models, and better balanced on the road due to weight distribution from the low-mounted battery pack that's closer to the ideal 50-50 than the nose-heavy regular versions. The electric model is powered by an electric motor system making 111 hp and 147 pound-feet of torque. In urban driving and at lower speeds, it feels stronger than those numbers might suggest. The 500e has a 24-kwh lithium-ion battery pack and will go an EPA-rated 84 miles.

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2016 FIAT 500

Comfort & Quality

The Fiat 500's front seats have short cushions and limited head room, and the rear seat is hardly usable for adults; try one before you buy.

The 2016 Fiat 500 is one of the smallest cars on the market, and while it's fun to drive, you'll be accompanied by a constant soundtrack. The car is noisy in pretty much every form except the California-only electric 500e. In the Abarth version, with its crackling, seductive exhaust note, it's deliberate; in other models, it just demonstrates that the basic 500—launched in 2007 in Europe—has now fallen behind the curve in suppressing noise, vibration, and harshness.

Inside, the front seats are spacious, but there are still compromises due to the 500's sub-compact form factor. The seat position places the driver unnaturally high in the cabin; that limits head room for taller drivers when the optional sunroof or glass roof is equipped. Shoulder, hip, and knee room are also limited, more so than you'd find in other small hatchbacks. 

It's not nearly as spacious as a Ford Fiesta, for instance, and if you're a typical-sized American, don't even think of trying to sit in the back seat. The best daily use for the back seats is serving as a parcel shelf, with the rear seat backs folded down. They can, technically, hold two smallish humans for a short time, but only if you must.

Behind the rear seats, there's a small cargo space that's so compact—just 9.5 cubic feet—and oddly shaped that you're only really equipped for transporting soft luggage and groceries.

Once you're used to the 500's cramped cockpit, its colorful and stylish interior trim lightens the mood. The seats earn valuable feel-good points—although they're a bit too flat and stool-like for some tastes. And if you end up using the driver-side armrest from the passenger seat, you won't feel any more crowded than in the average coach-class 757. Yes, it's that small. The bright side of it is that the cabin's so small, you're always very close to your passengers.

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2016 FIAT 500

Safety

An old design and a poor performance in a new IIHS test cut the Fiat 500's safety score.

The 2016 Fiat 500 gets tolerable, but hardly top-tier safety scores, and its now-10-year-old basic design is reflected in some aspects of the ratings.

The IIHS, on the other hand, gave the 500 three-door its top score of "Good" in most tests, but it received a worrisome "Poor" rating—the very lowest—in the tough new small-overlap frontal crash test. The NHTSA has rated it four stars overall, as well as four stars for frontal crash and rollover resistance, although it earned five stars for side impact.

But you won't find any active-safety systems—lane-departure warning or adaptive cruise control, for example—in any Fiat 500 model. Like any modern car, the Fiat 500 offers standard dual front, side and curtain airbags; it also includes a driver knee airbag. And in addition to the anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, there's a useful hill-hold feature that's nifty in town or country driving alike.

The Fiat 500 does offer nimble and responsive performance and roadholding, however, and it feels substantially larger behind the wheel than it is, in part because of the high, upright front seating position. So as small cars go, buying a Fiat 500 is about average.

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2016 FIAT 500

Features

Lots of trim levels, options, and dealer accessories let buyers customize the Fiat 500—just like the Mini—but electronic safety systems aren't available.

The 2016 Fiat 500 adds a new fourth trim level—the 500 Easy—to its traditional three, known as Pop, Sport, and Lounge. The 500 Turbo and 500 Abarth models are effectively their own trim level, and virtually all of the combinations are offered for both the three-door 500 hatchback and the 500c Cabrio with its tiny trunk and roll-back cloth roof.

The 500 Pop is the base vehicle, the only one that forgoes a standard 7.0-inch LCD display in the instrument cluster (it's optional). The base Fiat 500 Pop features a 5-speed manual transmission, 15-inch wheels, a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack, power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, and cruise control. All 500s also include Bluetooth streaming audio as well as Bluetooth hands-free calling.

The 500 Easy ups the ante with premium cloth bucket seats, a premium audio system, the 7.0-inch color high-definition cluster as standard, and 15-inch aluminum wheels with all-season tires. The Uconnect 5.0 system, which includes not only the 5.0-inch touchscreen, but also Bluetooth capability and voice command, is standard on the 500 and 500c Easy models.

The 500 Sport sizes up to 16-inch wheels, adds a fixed glass roof, and gets a sport-tuned suspension and sport-bolstered seats. Bluetooth and USB hardware are standard here, too. It also wears specific side cladding and a spoiler on its hatchback, even painted brake calipers. Above that, the 500 Lounge moves back down to some aspects of the 500 Pop spec, including 15-inch wheels. But it keeps the glass roof, and adds a 6-speed automatic and rear park assist, along with satellite radio, premium speakers and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The major options on the Pop models include the Bluetooth system and Bose speakers; on the Sport, automatic climate control and satellite radio are available. The Lounge editions can be fitted with a TomTom navigation system that can be mounted on a dash bracket; leather seats with heating and rear parking sensors are available, too. There's also a new Beats by Dre premium audio system.

Between the standard 500 with its 101-horsepower engine and the high-performance 160-hp Abarth, the 500T (or Turbo) model gets a 135-hp turbocharged engine, some sportier exterior details, and a "sport influenced" interior. The Abarth itself includes a much more potent 160-hp, 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir 4-cylinder engine, and a range of bodywork and interior cues to suit it. On the equipment side, the Abarth comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, performance cloth seats, 16x6.5-inch wheels, and Abarth logos inside and out.

That covers the three-door models. The 500c cabrio provides, naturally, a retractable soft top roof. Unlike other convertibles, however, the 500c's roof retracts just the center section, leaving the metal sides and pillars of the standard 500. It's a unique arrangement, and a nod to the 500 cabrios of the past. The 500c is offered in Pop, Easy, and Lounge variants, with the same equipment as standard coupe versions. You can also get the Abarth as a cabrio as well.

Once the car has been specified, there are all kinds of further choices for customization. Five new shades have joined the previous roster of 15 exterior colors for 2016. There are also 15 different seat color and materials options, and 50 accessories. Given the lengthy list of exterior colors, seat color and material options, and engines, transmissions, trim levels, and accessories, the chances of seeing an identical 500 to yours in the wild is astonishingly low.

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2016 FIAT 500

Fuel Economy

The Fiat 500's gas mileage is decent but hardly hybrid-level; for ultimate efficiency, get the electric 500e (if you're in California, anyway)

The 2016 Fiat 500 isn't actually all that fuel-efficient, compared to more capacious vehicles like the subcompact Honda Fit. With a choice of three different engine tunes and a variety of gearboxes to choose from, the most economical Fiat 500 is the base model with a standard 1.4-liter engine and a 5-speed manual gearbox, at 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).

And no Fiat 500 model comes close to the fuel efficiency of any member of the Toyota Prius family, which ranges from 42 mpg to 50 mpg combined. But fuel economy probably isn't why people buy Fiat 500s anyhow; it's the style factor and the quirky charm.

If you do want to be as energy efficient as possible, choose the Fiat 500e, the battery-electric model that's rated at 84 miles of range and a respectable 112 MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon Equivalent (a measure that shows how many miles a car can travel electrically on the same amount of energy as contained in a single gallon of gasoline).

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