2013 FIAT 500 Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Nelson Ireson Nelson Ireson Senior Editor
June 26, 2013

The 2013 Fiat 500 rewards the style-conscious buyer that's willing to go small, and the Abarth and Turbo models even add in a healthy dose of sport.

The 2013 Fiat 500 is stylish, at times sporty, and at others efficient, and it brings a lot to the table considering its small size. But can it overcome Fiat's previous reputation for poor reliability, especially in a market teeming with alternatives from America, Asia, and Europe?


With pert, upright styling that wraps a compact passenger compartment in simple, yet somehow characterful lines, the Fiat 500 manages to look upscale in a budget segment. Inside, it's more of the same, with high style executed in cost-cutting materials--without looking it.

New for 2013 is the Fiat 500 Turbo, which raises output to 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque from a 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder. A taller final drive gear ratio on the standard 500 and 500 Cabrio improve gas mileage to 31 mpg city and 40 mpg highway as well. A new Beats by Dr. Dre audio system gives the 500 and 500c better in-cabin sound, and new colors and premium leather seating enhance personalization. A five-speed manual transmission is also now standard on 500 and 500c Lounge models.

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Despite these improvements, and the 500's already capable Abarth performance version making headway, Fiat still has a high hurdle to clear with regard to its rather hideous reputation from 20 years ago. When the brand was last in the American market, build quality and reliability were notoriously poor. Thankfully, that appears to have been remedied for the 500 in all its various guises.

Better yet, the 500 is engaging to drive, especially if you're used to a toaster-like appliance driving experience. Combined with features usually reserved for the next segment up, including Bluetooth and auxiliary input jacks, the Fiat 500 makes a strong case for the value buy, especially for the urban dweller.

Even with a full year of sales under its belt in the U.S.--a year which fell far short of Fiat's optimistic goals--it's unclear if the 500 will manage the swim upstream against its past. Given the car's strengths, especially against the competitive set, however, we think it has a good chance.

That chance is even greater if buyers in the subcompact segment have great taste, as there's no question that the 500 stands out from the crowd that includes the Rio, the Yaris, and even the Fiesta. Despite its tiny price tag, it's as much art as it is appliance, and that's a refreshing change in the small-car world.

7

2013 FIAT 500

Styling

The 2013 Fiat 500 is just about as stylish as possible in the sub-compact realm, wearing its size with confidence.

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.

Though it's tall and somewhat upright by nature, the 2013 Fiat 500 is somehow svelte-seeming, the extra bulk required for modern safety (and modern occupants) hidden cleverly in the lower third of the shape. The forward-slanting rear glass, the button-like headlights, the up-kicked side surfacing, even the mustache bar across the nose--the combination of these details with the essence of the classic Cinquecento shape just works.

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 ergonomicists. Controls and displays, in contrast to the MINI's chaotic layout, are simple concentric gauges on the 500. The 500's layers of color and detail draw your hand to touch them and your eyes to linger on them. Poking fun at its own heritage rather than taking itself too seriously, the 500's interior has 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.

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With Fiat's "extreme customization" plan, an enormous range of colors and trim can be splashed on the 500's Mona Lisa-sized canvas. The usual primary car colors are on the list, but the 500 looks pretty fetching in a copper-toned hue, in simple white, and even in flat grey that recalls the first Audi TT and its Deco boldness.
7

2013 FIAT 500

Performance

With the addition of the 500T and Abarth models, the 2013 Fiat 500 range now has some bite.

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.

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6

2013 FIAT 500

Comfort & Quality

It's small, short, and a bit tight on cargo and passenger space, but the 2013 Fiat 500 still manages to deliver a comfy ride.

The 2013 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.

Take the back seats, for instance. They are very, very close to the front seats. The best daily use is as a parcel shelf, with the rear seatbacks in their lowered position. If you absolutely must, however, the rear seats can, technically, hold two smallish humans. For a short time.

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.

Behind the rear seats, there's an equally small cargo space. The "500" figured hatch latch opens onto a space that's so compact--just 9.5 cubic feet--and oddly shaped that you're only really equipped for transporting scale models of pyramids and obelisks.

Fortunately, the front seats are significantly more spacious, though there are still compromises for the 500's sub-compact form factor. The seat position places the driver unnaturally high in the cabin, limiting headroom for taller drivers when the optional sunroof or glass roof is equipped. Shoulder, hip, and knee room are also more limited than you'd expect, or than you'd find in the Fiesta.

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?

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7

2013 FIAT 500

Safety

While it's not yet fully crash tested, the 2013 Fiat 500 has the equipment it needs to put buyers at ease.

Yes, the 2013 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 only partially crash-tested the 2013 Fiat 500, rating it at four stars for frontal crash and rollover resistance, but unrated in side-impact and overall scores. The largely identical 2012 Fiat 500 scored three stars overall, however. The 2013 500c and Abarth have not yet been crash tested by the NHTSA.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded the 2012 Fiat 500 a Top Safety Pick rating, but hasn't yet scored the 2013 model.

Like any modern car, the Fiat 500 offers standard dual front, side and curtain airbags, with the "sometimes Y" addition of a driver knee airbag. The 500 also offers standard anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and a hill-hold device--handy in hilly urban environs.

Things you won't find in the low-cost Fiat 500 are the more advanced safety gadgets, like lane-departure warning or adaptive cruise control. On Lounge models, however, you can add rear parking sensors. For hands-free driving, Bluetooth is also standard on the top models, and an optional extra even on the base 500.

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8

2013 FIAT 500

Features

Well-equipped for the price, with a fair list of available upgrades, the 2013 Fiat 500 isn't the most feature-packed, but it's not the least, either.

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 2013 Fiat 500 offers three major variants, each with their own flavors: the 500, the 500C, and the 500 Abarth.

At the first run on the ladder, 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 $18,500, 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 and rear park assist, along with satellite radio, premium speakers and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Brand new for 2013 is the 500 Turbo (or 500T), starting at $19,500. Intended to slot between the 500 Abarth and the standard 500, it gets a 135-horsepower turbocharged engine, some sportier exterior details, and a "sport influenced" interior. Full details on the 500T haven't been released just yet--the car was unveiled late this summer.

Moving to the Fiat 500c, you get, naturally, a retractable soft top roof. Unlike other convertibles, however, the 500c's roof retracts just the center section, leaving the metal sides and pillars of the standard 500. It's a unique arrangement, and a nod to the 500 cabrios of the past. Both Pop ($19,500) and Lounge ($22,500) are available, but there's no 500c Sport. They each offer the same basic features as their hardtop alternatives.

The major options on the Pop models include the Bluetooth system and Bose speakers; on the Sport, automatic climate control and satellite radio are available. The Lounge editions 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.

With the Fiat 500 Abarth, you get a whole host of changes, including a much more potent 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder engine, and a range of bodywork and interior cues to suit it. On the equipment side, the Abarth comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, Alpine audio system, Blue&Me infotainment with USB port, performance cloth seats, 16x6.5-inch wheels, and Abarth logos inside and out.

Once you've picked the model you'll use as your canvas, there are all kinds of choices for customization: 15 exterior colors, 15 different seat color and materials options, and 50 accessories. In all, some 500,000 different Fiat 500s can be built from the catalog, right up there in MINI Cooper territory.

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.

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2013 FIAT 500

Fuel Economy

As small as the 2013 Fiat 500 is, you might expect better gas mileage, especially in the more powerful variants. So would we.

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. Given its size, however, it seems like it should be.

The most efficient model is the base 500 equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, earning an EPA-estimated 31 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. The optional six-speed automatic drops those figures to 27 mpg and 34 mpg, respectively.

Moving up to the 500 Abarth, you gain 60 horsepower and a turbocharger, but lose only a bit of efficiency: it rates 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.

Compared to most of the cars on the road these days, those are very good figures. But when mid-size hybrid family sedans are beating the pint-sized Fiat at the pump, you realize the trade-off required to get the 500's low price tag.

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January 28, 2016
2013 FIAT 500 2-Door Convertible Abarth

500 Abarth Close to perfect small performance car

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I have had the Fiat for a few years now and drive it in Cleveland as my summer car. I have never has a lick of trouble with it. The car is small and easy to maneuver in traffic. It drives much larger than it... + More »
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July 7, 2015
2013 FIAT 500 2-Door Convertible Abarth

I would be driving a Golf R if they had any style.

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Purchased as an inexpensive yet fun car to save up for another sports car, the FIAT 500 Abarth has proven itself to be a blast to drive and can hold its own on the track as well. I've kept it longer than I had... + More »
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Styling 7
Performance 7
Comfort & Quality 6
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Features 8
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