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. With the new 135-horsepower Fiat 500 Turbo joining the fold for 2013, and the 160-horsepower Fiat 500 Abarth at the apex of the range, there are options with more pep should you want it.
The base engine engine is 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 it'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.
Step into the Fiat 500 Turbo, however, and the 35 percent boost in power is readily apparent, while the 160-horsepower Abarth actually feels sporty, especially in the first three gears. As you work up the power range, you also work up to more sporty visual cues and more firmly tuned suspensions. Even in the sporty Abarth, however, ride quality is quite good for a lightweight, short-wheelbase car.
With even the bigger 16-inch wheels and a tauter sport suspension on the Sport, the 500 masks a lot of the ride harshness that comes with anything riding atop a wheelbase this short (90.6 inches, like the old Honda CRX). Even over rough roads, the 500 remains composed. Small tires and a torsion beam rear axle do step in in trickier situations, however, especially on smallish base 500 tires. The Abarth is somewhat more confident all around thanks to slightly more tire contact patch, while its suspension upgrades increase nimbleness by limiting body roll. 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.
Even in base 500 form, it's no anechoic chamber. 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. In the Abarth, the note is downright raspy, throaty and, when you're really on it, mean. In cruising it can be a bit more than you might like for conversation, but it's not loud enough to be annoying.
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. The Abarth is available only in five-speed manual guise.