2017 FIAT 500 Review

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2018
The Car Connection
2018
The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 7, 2017

The 2017 Fiat 500, in a simplified lineup of models, is still stylish and distinctive after six years; pick the Abarth for driver excitement or the 500c Cabrio for inexpensive soft-top fun

The 2017 Fiat 500 minicar is now in its sixth year, and this year, Fiat has simplified the model lineup into three trim levels—base Pop, feature-rich Lounge, and sporty Abarth. Each is available as a three-door 500 hatchback or a two-door 500c Cabrio.

It's a good choice as a city car, but subpar performance, features, and especially safety scores put it near the bottom of our new-car rankings, with a score of 4.7 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The 500 name is also applied to the 500L tall wagon and the 500X small crossover utility vehicle, but those are sufficiently different to the cute, quirky, fun original 500 that we've reviewed them separately. While it looks similar on the outside, the 500e all-electric version is also treated separately. 

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The 500 and 500c are excellent city cars for tiny spaces. But their distinctive looks and fun-to-drive character keep them popular, and the sprawling array of vehicles, models, and trims is more understandable this year. The three-door remains the Fiat that makes owners and onlookers smile, while the 500 Cabrio offers a roll-back cloth roof that gives open-air runabout style without the hassle of putting down a full cloth top.

The 500's very small footprint and almost toy-like dimensions pack in a great deal of character, and it won't be mistaken for any other car. The exterior design pulls off the short, tall hatchback proportions without a hint of awkwardness, unlike the latest Mini Cooper. And the 500 manages to provide a high-style interior out of fairly low-cost materials—mixing a simple instrument cluster, body-color panels, and Italian design panache in a pleasing and unique blend.

Small car, small interior

While the Fiat 500 maxes out interior space in its tiny footprint, it's still very short on passenger space compared to, say, a Ford Fiesta, a Chevy Spark, even the latest Mini Cooper. The odd ergonomics of the driver's seat won't be for everyone. The seats are well-formed, but on the short and firm side. They're also very high, which limits head room. Any occupants who try to enter the rear will suffer from truly minuscule rear-seat space. If you really need a rear seat, check the Fiat 500L tall wagon, which shares little with the original 500 except a model name and offers surprising interior volume for four.

The sporty Abarth aside, most FIat 500s aren't all that peppy or quick. The standard powertrain is a 101-hp 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, offered with a standard 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission (as are all versions). The turbocharged 500 Abarth is far more powerful, with 160 hp from the same size engine, turning the little car into a snorting beast with the sexiest exhaust note south of six-figure supercars. The intermediate 500 Turbo model, at 135 hp, is no longer part of the lineup.

Despite a lack of power on the base car, the Fiat 500 is fun to toss around and easy to position on the road—and in small parking spaces. Our favorite remains the 500 Abarth, with a raucous exhaust note and ample front-wheel power that make it sheer fun to drive, and a different and sportier set of ratios for the manual gearbox. It also has a more firmly tuned suspension that doesn't damage the comfort much. Even if we wouldn't choose any 500 for long highway trips, the ride quality is quite good for a lightweight, short-wheelbase car.

It may be small, but the Fiat 500 isn't that fuel-efficient. EPA ratings for the base engine with the 5-speed manual are 31 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined. And the pair of turbos is lower yet, at 30 or 27 mpg combined with the manual and automatic respectively. Premium fuel is also recommended for all Fiat 500 models.

Simpler trim choices

Fiat not only simplified the model lineup at trim levels, it cut starting prices for certain models. The base 2017 Fiat 500 Pop starts at less than $16,000 including delivery, more than $1,000 less than the launch price in 2012 for the same model. All Pop models have a 5-speed manual transmission, 15-inch painted aluminum wheels, air conditioning, a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack, power windows/locks/mirrors, and cruise control. It can also be ordered with a Sport Appearance Package—including 16-inch wheels and a sort of aero kit for the body—that substitutes for last year's separate Sport trim level.

The 500 Lounge includes new 15-inch wheels, a 7.0-inch LCD display replacing the instrument cluster, a fixed glass roof, chrome body and interior accents, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and other controls. And the 500 Abarth, now starting below $21,000 (a $2,580 reduction from its launch price, Fiat says), adds the turbocharged engine, suspension upgrades, a new black 16-inch forged alloy wheel, and standard ParkSense rear parking sensors.

The 500c Cabrio adds $1,500 to the price of any trim level, and Fiat has opened up the options list, so buyers can specify exactly the combination of features they want. The latest UConnect 5.0 system, added last year, provides a 5.0-inch touchscreen for controlling the AM/FM radio, an integrated CD player, and optional satellite radio and navigation systems. Major options include a power-operated sunroof on the three-door model, a Beats Audio System, a navigation system, and a large array of appearance items, trim add-ons, and wheel choices.

6

2017 FIAT 500

Styling

The Fiat 500 remains stylish and distinctive inside and out fully six years after it launched.

The2017 Fiat 500 continues to make people smile when they look at it, and that's been the case since it first appeared on North American roads in the spring of 2011. Both the 500 three-door hatchback and its 500c Cabrio version are disarming, charming, and unique—and they could have come only from Fiat.

We give it a 6 for styling, with a point for an interior above the norm. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Pert, upright styling and character-filled lines wrap around a very body, and the car's designers have managed to use relatively inexpensive materials inside that appear far more stylish and upscale than they actually are. Despite a tall and somewhat upright shape, the little 500 can almost seem svelte from a few angles. The car's extra bulk needed for safety is disguised in the lower third, while button-like headlamps, a "mustache" trim bar in front, upward-sloping sides, and forward-sloping rear glass combined for a thoroughly modern homage to the classic Cinquecento shape of 1957.

The soft-top 500c Cabrio maintains the same roofline, because only its flat roof panel actually changes. It's made of retractable fabric (offered in several color choices, including some pretty startling tones), and it too hearkens back to the original 500c of half a century ago. Its designers have preserved structural rigidity and kept passengers safe by keeping the same doors and roof-side rails, with only the wide roof panel changing to cloth, and a vestigial trunk lid replacing the hardtop's hatch.

In one lens, the interior could be seen as a little gimmicky or overstyled. Despite advances in the latest Mini, in which designers have finally imposed some coherence on the formerly chaotic clutter of switches, knobs, levers, and dials, the 500 still beats even the latest generation of Mini in simplicity combined with elegance. Overall, the interior successfully blends playful and practical in a way that U.S., German, Japanese, and Korean designers can only envy.

For 2017, Fiat has simplified the model lineup considerably. There's still a lengthy list of appearance options and colors—inside and out—but the models break down into simple and comprehensible categories from which buyers can choose—before they customize their 500 to make it unique.

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4

2017 FIAT 500

Performance

All Fiat 500s are fun to drive, but the raucous 500 Abarth wins for performance where the base powertrain isn't all that quick.

The Fiat 500 gets a score of 4 for performance. Its grippy and bubbly Abarth edition makes up for below-par performance elsewhere, except in ride quality. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

With a simplified lineup of engines, trim levels, and models, the 2017 Fiat 500 range is easier to understand—and it now has just two engine choices, a base 101-horsepower engine or the turbocharged 160-hp Abarth version. Both are 1.4-liter 4-cylinder units, and each is offered with a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission.

The entry-level engine isn't quite as peppy or perky as you might expect in something with the 500's design. To get the most out of the base Fiat 500, you have to drive it like a European: run the engine up to redline in every gear. It doesn't get too harsh as it rises higher through the rev range, and there's a lively rasp as it passes 3,000 rpm.

Even if it's a bit short on power, the base 500 bubbles over with enthusiasm, just as you'll find in the frisky Ford Fiesta. That's not to imply the 500 is "fast"—a 0-to-60-mph run takes about 10 seconds—but it's pleasing to wring through its paces, and it feels flexible and lively. That said, with two aboard, you're ill-advised to try passing uphill.

Then there's the Abarth version, which makes good on the promises of the exterior. It's the clear and distinct choice for those who want to be looked at every time they blip the throttle. The Fiat 500 Abarth actually feels sporty, especially in the first three gears of the manual-transmission model. Perhaps its most distinctive and alluring feature is the especially raucous exhaust note.

The 500 Abarth and Abarth Cabrio models now offer the option of a 6-speed automatic transmission. The standard 5-speed manual's shifter action is light and precise enough, although the car's limited foot space doesn't help 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.

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. The larger 16-inch wheels and stiffer suspension of higher-end models don't produce the expected ride harshness despite the short 90.6-inch wheelbase. And even in the sporty Abarth, ride quality is quite good for a lightweight and very small car. Small tires and a torsion-beam rear axle do make themselves known in tricky situations, although the larger tire-contact patch of the Abarth makes it somewhat more confident all around and its uprated suspension upgrades increase nimbleness by limiting body roll.

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2

2017 FIAT 500

Comfort & Quality

There's little space inside, the Fiat 500's rear seats are all but unusable, and the front seats aren't shaped very well.

The 500's colorful and stylish interior trim makes the interior a good place to be, even a cheerful one. The 500's interior makes the best of a very small footprint, but it can't conjure a fourth dimension out of its limited volume.

We give the 500 a low score of 2 for comfort, utility, and quality. It's very small, and has uncomfortable seats, though its fold-down rear seat makes for a small but usable cargo space. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The 2017 Fiat 500 is one of the smallest cars on the market, and the basic design is now a decade old. That means that, while it's fun to drive, you'll be accompanied by a continual soundtrack. The 500 is noisy in pretty much every form (except the California-only electric 500e, reviewed separately). In the Abarth version, of course, the seductive, crackling, rasping exhaust note is deliberate, delicious, and clearly a selling point. But in other models, it's more obvious that the basic 500 has now fallen behind the curve in suppressing noise, vibration, and harshness.

For some front occupants, the seats are a bit too flat and stool-like. The driving position is also slightly compromised by the steering wheel position, which is flatter and more horizontal than in larger cars, simply because the front wheels are so close to the driver's feet. The front seat seat position places the driver unnaturally high in the cabin, restricts limits head room for taller drivers—especially if the optional sunroof or glass roof is specified. Hip, shoulder, and knee room are also more constrained than you'd find in other small hatchbacks. Even the Ford Fiesta, which is on the small side of the subcompact segment, feels far more spacious inside.

As for the rear, if you're a typical-sized U.S. adult, don't even think of trying to sit in the back seats. Their best daily use is as a parcel shelf, or providing a useful load bay with the rear seat backs folded down. The seats can, technically, hold two smallish humans, but only if you must, only for a short time, and only if you're willing to endure their unhappiness. With the rear seat back up, the small cargo space behind is so oddly shaped and compact—just 9.5 cubic feet—that you're only really equipped for soft luggage or grocery hauling.

Look at it this way: you won't feel any more crowded in the Fiat 500 than in the average coach-class jet airliner seat. Yes, it's that small. The bright side of it is that the cabin's so small, you're always very close to your passengers. Even if the passenger ends up using the driver's armrest because it's so close. And you'll likely forget all about the interior when you're zipping the 500 into tiny parking spaces anyway.

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2017 FIAT 500

Safety

The Fiat 500 is showing its age, with poor crash-test results and no rearview camera.

The 2017 Fiat 500 is now a 10-year-old design, and it receives adequate but hardly top-tier safety scores. The NHTSA has rated it four stars overall, as well as four stars for frontal crash and rollover resistance—although it did give the little 500 five stars for side impact.

On the other hand, the IIHS gave the three-door model its top score of "Good" in most tests, but it received a worrisome "Poor" rating—the very lowest—in the tough small-overlap frontal crash test.

For those reasons, we give it a 3 for safety. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

On the plus side, all 500 models offer nimble and responsive performance and roadholding, and they can feel larger behind the wheel than they are, in part because of the upright, high position of the front seats.  Like any modern car, the Fiat 500 offers standard dual front, side and curtain airbags; it also includes a driver knee airbag. And it includes the basic electronic systems— anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control—plus a hill-hold feature that's useful in rural or urban driving alike.

What the 500 lacks, however, is a single active-safety system, even as optional equipment. There's no adaptive cruise control or lane-departure warning on any model. Neither does blind-spot monitoring or automatic crash braking appear anywhere on the option list. Rear parking sensors, in fact, are included only on the top-line 500 Lounge model.

It doesn't even have a rearview camera on offer, though you could argue that it's so short that may be less important. Until, that is, you try to look over the folded soft top of the 500c Cabrio with its cloth roof rolled back. In 2017, that's a surprising omission.

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5

2017 FIAT 500

Features

The Fiat 500 offers a lot of appearance options, but no electronic active-safety aids or even a rearview camera.

After adding trim levels last year, Fiat has substantially trimmed the varieties of 2017 Fiat 500 to three versions: Pop, Lounge, and Abarth. Each can be ordered as a three-door hatchback or a two-door cloth-roofed Cabrio, and any variant can be specified with a 5-speed manual gearbox or 6-speed automatic transmission.

We give the Fiat 500 a 5 for features, because there's a lot left off its order sheet. (Read more about how we rate cars.) From our base score of 5 we give it points for customization choices, but deduct a point for the lack of features as basic as a rearview camera.

The 500 Pop is the base vehicle, featuring a 5-speed manual transmission, 15-inch painted aluminum wheels, a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack, power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, and cruise control. All 500s also include Bluetooth streaming audio as well as Bluetooth hands-free calling. The Pop can also be ordered with a Sport Appearance Package—including 16-inch wheels and a set of aerodynamic add-ons for the body—that substitutes for last year's separate Sport trim level. Fiat notes that its base price is more than $1,000 lower than the same car when the 500 launched in 2012.

The mid-level 500 Lounge includes new 15-inch wheels, a 7.0-inch LCD display replacing the instrument cluster, a fixed glass roof, chrome body and interior accents, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and other controls.

Finally, the sporty 500 Abarth adds the turbocharged engine, suspension upgrades, a new black 16-inch forged alloy wheel, and rear parking sensors. Fiat notes that its sexiest model now starts below $21,000, for a $2,580 reduction from its launch price.

The 500c Cabrio adds $1,500 to the price of any trim level, and Fiat has opened up the options list, so buyers can specify exactly the combination of features they want. The latest UConnect 5.0 system, added last year, provides a 5.0-inch touchscreen for controlling the AM/FM radio, an integrated CD player, and optional satellite radio and navigation systems.

Major options include a power-operated sunroof on the three-door model, a premium Beats Audio System, a TomTom navigation system that can be mounted on a dash bracket; and leather seats with heating.

Once the car has been specified, a large array of appearance items, trim add-ons, and wheel choices adds further ways for buyers to customize. Five new shades joined the previous roster of 15 exterior colors for 2016. There are also 15 different seat color and materials options, and 50 accessories. Given the lengthy list of exterior colors, seat color and material options, and engines, transmissions, trim levels, and accessories, the chances of seeing an identical 500 to yours in the wild seems quite low indeed.

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2017 FIAT 500

Fuel Economy

Compared to other, more capacious small cars, the Fiat 500 falls down on fuel efficiency.

The 2017 Fiat 500 isn't very fuel-efficient when compared to any number of vehicles with more interior capacity, including the subcompact Honda Fit and even the Chevy Spark.

Still, we award it a score of 8 for fuel economy, because it's still pretty high. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

With engine choices cut to two, along with two gearbox options, the most economical Fiat 500 remains the base model with a 5-speed manual gearbox attached to its 1.4-liter engine, at 31 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined. The automatic takes those numbers down to 27/34/30 mpg.

Either of the two 1.4-liter turbocharged Abarth models takes a hit against the base car, with the 6-speed automatic come in at only 24/32/27 mpg and the manual slightly better at 30 mpg combined. It's also worth noting that premium fuel is recommended for all Fiat 500 models.

Compare those ratings to those of the Honda Fit, which can actually hold four adults and their goods, and comes in at 36 mpg combined (when fitted with a continuously variable transmission). That's not even to approach the Toyota Prius range, which in its latest incarnation is rated at 52 mpg combined or 56 mpg combined for the special Eco model.

Granted, fuel economy may not be why most people buy Fiat 500s anyhow, caring more for the style factor and the quirky charm. If you want an energy-efficient Fiat 500, in fact, you'd better live in California, where the Fiat 500e battery-electric model is offered. Its efficiency rating in miles per gallon equivalent is roughly triple that of the best gasoline model.

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4.7
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Expert Rating
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Styling 6
Performance 4
Comfort & Quality 2
Safety 3
Features 5
Fuel Economy 8
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