With just 101 horsepower at its disposal, the Fiat 500 gets outgunned by almost everything in the automotive galaxy. Those low-wattage numbers light up in the course of duty: once it's up to a rolling boil, the 500 bubbles over with the same variety of enthusiasm you'll find in the frisky Ford Fiesta.
The 500 has one engine to its credit, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder with variable air intake "MultAir" technology that Fiat credits for better power delivery and fuel economy. It delivers 101 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and this is one engine that's happy to run up to redline in each and every gear. There's a lively rasp as it rushes over 3000 rpm, and it doesn't get too harsh as it rises higher through the rev range. That's not to imply the 500, in this configuration, is "fast"--it's likely barely under 10 seconds in the 0-60 mph run, but pleasing to wring through the paces. With two aboard, you'd be ill advised to try passing uphill--and yet, in the heart of its powerband, with the transmission in third gear, the 500 feels flexible and lively and eager beyond its power figures.
it's no anechoic chamber, either. That small-animal pitch raised underhood weaves itself into the steady tire and wind noise the 500 accrues as it picks up speed. The cabin's so small, the noise never will prevent you from hearing back-seat conversations, though.
Two transmissions are offered; we drove the five-speed manual exclusively. The shifter action is light and precise enough, but the limited foot space doesn't mate up with the clutch pedal's long stroke and high uptake point. A six-speed automatic is an option, and it comes with a Sport button that tightens up shift points and quickens the throttle feel.
With even the bigger 16-inch wheels and a tauter sport suspension on the Sport model I drove, the 500 masked a lot of the ride harshness that comes with anything riding atop a wheelbase this short (90.6 inches, like the old Honda CRX). Of course, medium-sized potholes will swallow half-moons out of the tires, but the 500 keeps its composure a good deal of the time. It's when you pose intense questions to its torsion-beam rear end--how much speed can I scrub off downhill, while the rear end's all light?--it flutters a bit and warns you just how small those tires really are. Steering clear of trouble like that is a joy: the 500's electric power steering has a meaty bite, and can feel like unassisted steering at times.