By most measures, the Fiat 500 is engaging to drive--especially if you're used to a toaster-like, small-car-as-appliance driving experience.
The only exception is acceleration at the base end of the lineup. Entry models get a 101-horsepower engine that's not quite as peppy or perky as you'd expect in something with the 500's design; but the Turbo models and their 135-hp engine are the ones that make good on the promises of the exterior.
For the base engine, peak power doesn't arrive until 6,000 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. It's flexible and lively enough, but with two aboard, you'd be ill advised to try passing uphill.
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.
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.
Throughout most of the lineup (except the Abarth), you have a choice between an automatic transmission or manual gearbox; our driving time has exclusively been spent in manual versions, so we're still wondering about automatic-transmission drivability in this car. But with the five-speed manual, the shifter action is light and precise enough, although 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 in all but the Abarth, and it comes with a Sport button that tightens up shift points and quickens the throttle feel.
While the simple versions of the 500 are a bit short on power, they bubble over with the same variety of enthusiasm you'll find in the frisky Ford Fiesta. And 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.
And even with the larger 16-inch wheels and stiffer suspension in 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). Small tires and a torsion beam rear axle do make themselves known in tricky situations, although 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.