Amongst other econobox small cars, the Fiat 500 is relatively engaging to drive, especially in its turbo and Abarth guises. And the 500e battery-electric version delivers silent yet thrilling performance, especially at city speeds.
Throughout the lineup, you now have a choice between an automatic transmission or manual gearbox; our driving time has exclusively been spent in manual versions, so far; but for 2015 the 500 Turbo, Abarth, and Abarth Cabrio models all gain the option of a six-speed automatic transmission.
As for 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. On automatics, a Sport button that tightens up shift points and quickens the throttle feel.
500e electric models are 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 87 miles.
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.
With Fiat 500 Turbo, however, there's a 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.
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.
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.