- Brilliant interior styling
- Expressive sheetmetal
- Rev-happy four-cylinder
- Meaty steering feel
- Smart bundles of features
- It's really, really tiny inside!
- Not slow, but not at all quick
- Good gas mileage, not stellar
The 2012 Fiat 500 pays big dividends for going small--in expressive styling and even in driving verve.
Americans bring muscle, the Germans engineering might, and the Asian brands, reliability. So...what's left for the Italians to bring back to the U.S. car party?
If you can indulge us one more stereotype, we'll go with style. Italian automakers may never have been known for world-class quality, or for brilliant marketing, but the eye for a finely turned turn signal, or a pure side-glass silhouette? That's all Italian, all the time from Ferrari right down to this pert little hatchback with the weight of Fiat's rebirth all on its very small back. Va bene? Va bene.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is out in the wild now, streaming out of more than a hundred new Fiat showrooms across the country, as Chrysler and Fiat firm up their alliance and find new, inventive ways to get high-gas-mileage cars to America quickly. The 500's been on sale for years in Europe; now it's been engineered to meet U.S. safety and marketing standards, and to be built in a North American plant, too.
It could hardly have arrived at a better time. Gas prices are over $3 a gallon, and the 500's nearly 40-mpg fuel economy gives it at least one convincing argument to park itself in the garages of small-car buyers everywhere. But unlike other subcompact buyers with big EPA numbers, the 500 has a heady dose of style, from its heritage-induced proportions to the mix-and-match color play of its pint-sized interior.
The hurdles it faces are pretty big ones, for a car so tiny, and for a brand that left the American market more than 20 years ago with a hideous reputation for build quality and reliability. The 500 is almost a two-seater, by American standards, and a small one at that. It's engaging to drive, if you're used to the subcompact drudgery of the Yaris or the Fit or the Aveo. And it comes packaged with the features that have become essential in our daily lives--stuff like Bluetooth and aux jacks.
No one can predict if this truly is the tide-turning moment for small cars in the States. And the 500 will thrive or not, based on a momentous swing in drivers' tastes.
But if they have great taste, the Fiat 500 will stand out from the likes of the Aveo and Yaris, even the Fiesta. It's a small piece of art, even more inside than out--with only a T.J. Maxx pricetag keeping it out of an industrial-design museum.
2012 FIAT 500
Fiat's designers make the most of the 500's brilliantly styled interior; the sheetmetal's rendered almost as bravely.
It's friendly and pert, with suavely executed details. And even if the Fiat 500 can't quite displace Hello Kitty as the most awww!-inducing cult object on the planet, it still comes whole continents closer than the yucky Toyota Yaris and Honda's MPV-like Fit.
The new 500 has the burden of legend to live up to--even if like us, you can't quite see the styling genius in the original. The reborn car's a fine example of industrial design, with the extra padding of the generations built into the thick lower third of its body. The best points of the design are the forward cant of the rear glass, the charming button-like headlamps, the mustache bar that spans the nose, and the hockey-stick surfacing that starts just behind the tiny front wheels, and peters out ahead of the rear tires. The hatch release spells out "500," another smart detail that's a subliminal home run during test drives, we bet.
The 500's dash may vaguely remind you of the one found in the MINI Cooper, what with all the circles strewn about. Fiat has much better ideas running around in the heads of its designers and ergonimicists. The chaotic controls of the MINI can't hold a match to the simple concentric gauges of the 500. The 500's layers of color and detail draw your hand to touch them and your eyes to linger on them. The MINI Cooper renders its interior as a sturdy homage to the past; the 500's dash pokes fun at its own heritage, with a playfulness that turns faintly sexy if you opt for the lipstick-red trim--or veers into Hollywood Regency style if you opt for a nearly all-white cabin.
2012 FIAT 500
Small power translates into big grins in the 2012 Fiat 500, thanks to lively steering and nimble handling.
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.
2012 FIAT 500
Comfort & Quality
Think small and edit your carry-ons if you want to be comfortable in the 2012 Fiat 500.
The 2012 Fiat 500 maxes out its interior space, but the passenger package isn't quite as roomy as a Ford Fiesta--which means all kinds of compromises on whom and what you bring along for the ride.
Let's start in the back, for a change. Lift the 500's hatch by pulling on the sweetly detailed hatch latch that curves around the number "500," and there's a moment of...well it's not disbelief. This is a subcompact, after all, but the sheer smallness of the cargo space behind the rear seats will remind you that downsizing from a MacBook Pro to a MacBook Air might just have benefits you never thought of. It's a scant 9.5 cubic feet that's deeper at the cargo floor than at the roofline; so long as you're toting scale models of pyramids, it's all good.
The back seat...sits closely to the front seats. Its best purpose in daily use will be flipped down, augmenting the cargo space, rendering the 500 a two-seater in most cases. That it's still more functional than a two-seat Honda CR-Z (and more fuel-efficient, sometimes) is striking. If you're more than moderately American in height and girth, you just won't fit in the 500's back seat. It's a space that confines even more than the not-much-larger space in a Ford Fiesta, since there aren't extra doors to fudge the entry and exit. Of course, if you've paid the price for fashion with Italian shoes, squeezing in here will seem less cruel. Briefly.
The front seats are where most of us will breathe a sigh of relief. There's more cubic feet spread around, particularly on the passenger side. Still, I've never driven a vehicle, save for the classic Japan-only Suzuki Cappuccino roadster, where I've experienced less knee room. The lack of horizontal space behind the wheel can make it difficult to place a foot on the accelerator, since the center dash stack bows out into leg space. Headroom is a problem that only the metal-roof 500 can cure--even in models with the glass roof, the 500's ceiling is so close to its high-mounted seats, that anyone over 5' 8" will notice how close it sits to their scalp. You haven't seen hysterical until you've seen another media outlet's 6' 8" reporter try to wedge into the 500--until you've seen him try the same in the even smaller, vintage Fiat 500. The driver seat on Sport models is height-adjustable, but not nearly enough to make a big difference.
Once you're used to the 500's cramped cockpit, the colorful trim lightens the mood and the seats earn valuable feel-good points. They're much better shaped and fitted than the barstools in the Fiesta--and the 500 makes the best of cheap headrests by molding the plastic pieces into clever circles. 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, now, will you?
2012 FIAT 500
While we're waiting on crash-test scores, we're giving the 2012 Fiat 500 a reasonable score of 7 based on its standard safety gear.
Yes, the 2012 Fiat 500 is very, very small. How it rates for safety remains an open question to industry and federal agencies, but Fiat has gone out of its way to fit in safety technology to ensure the subcompact 500 protects passengers well.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has yet to crash-test the 500--and it's the same story over at the insurance industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). We'll update this review as soon as these crash-test players publish results.
On the 500's features list are the usual dual front, side and curtain airbags, with the "sometimes Y" addition of a driver knee airbag. The 500 also sports standard anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control. A hill-holder device also is standard, and probably a necessity with the 500's urban appeal.
The inexpensive Fiat 500 doesn't have the fanciest lane-departure warning systems and the like, but Bluetooth is standard on the top two models and available on the base model--which gives it more credibility for passive safety in that regard than some notable Honda/Acura and Volkswagen vehicles. Rear parking sensors are an option on the Lounge model.
2012 FIAT 500
Fiat's been reading off MINI's homework: the 2012 500 specs out in three basic models, but a half-million combos of color and features are possible.
Watching the success of MINI and Scion in the personalization wars, Fiat is handing over the keys to 500 buyers and letting them go wild with color, features and other add-ons.
But first, the basics. The 2012 Fiat 500 comes in three essential flavors: Pop, Sport and Lounge. The $15,500 Fiat 500 Pop sports the five-speed manual transmission, 15-inch wheels, air conditioning, a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack, power windows/locks/mirrors, and cruise control.
The $17,500 500 Sport sizes up to 16-inch wheels, adds a fixed glass roof, and gets a sport-tuned suspension and sport-bolstered seats. It also wears specific side cladding and a spoiler on its hatchback, even painted brake calipers. On the Sport, Fiat includes standard Bluetooth and USB hardware.
For $19,500, the 500 Lounge moves back down to 500 Pop spec; it reverts to 15-inch wheels and hangs on to the glass roof, while it adds the six-speed automatic, along with satellite radio, Bose speakers and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The major options on the Pop include the Bluetooth system and Bose speakers; on the Sport, automatic climate control and satellite radio are available. The Lounge edition 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.
From these core models, Fiat 500 owners can go higgeldy-piggeldy with what Fiat's execs call "extreme personalization." In common speak, that means all kinds of choices from among 14 interior and exterior colors, 30 seat covers, and 50 accessories. In all, some 500,000 different Fiat 500s can be built from the catalog, right up there in MINI Cooper territory. If you haven't been to Fiat's Web site, give it a whirl--you might come to love the frothy mocha color--and we guarantee the white 500 with red and green Italian livery will win you over.
Every Fiat 500 comes with a four-year/60,000-mile warranty--and Fiat will pay for basic maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles of service. Call it penance for the bad old Fiats of the 1970s if you want--it's more a smart marketing reality for a brand that's starting fresh from somewhat tainted roots.
2012 FIAT 500
Fuel economy rises above most of the subcompact field, though the Fiat 500 still looks up to the likes of the Honda CR-Z and Ford Fiesta in ultimate EPA numbers.
While it's not the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can buy today in America, the Italian-bred Fiat 500 is pretty darn close to it, with fuel economy approaching 40 mpg for some versions.
Fiat says the 2012 500 will get an EPA-certified fuel economy of 30/38 mpg city/highway when outfitted with the standard five-speed manual transmission. As for the six-speed automatic that's an option on the 500, Fiat says it's good for 27/34 mpg.
In contrast, the manual-gearbox Ford Fiesta is rated at 28/37 mpg, while the dual-clutch Fiesta automatic earns a 30/40 mpg rating, according to Ford. Then there's the sporty-ish Honda CR-Z, which clocks its best EPA ratings with a 35/39 mpg rating, though in our experience its real-world ratings can drop deep below or soar far above those numbers.
Fiat promises an electric version of the 500 will go into production by the fourth quarter of 2012.