It’s been over a quarter-century, so perhaps my memory grows hazy. But I recall enjoying the small, light subcompacts of the mid-1980s tremendously. They didn’t have much power. Power wasn’t a requirement, just a willingness to rev and to be tossed sideways through curves. I’ve spent the years since trying to recapture that experience. And failing. Too much mass. Too much tire. Even too much refinement. But FIAT’s not famed for refinement. And, at 2,363 pounds, the reborn 500 (pronounced “cinquecento”) is a quarter-ton lighter than today’s compacts. So perhaps my search is over?
Styling is clearly a FIAT 500 strength. Back in the mid-1990s I spent some time inside GM’s Design Center as part of the research for my thesis. At the time every brand and model had a few words that were supposed to capture its essence. I pointed out to the designers that “cute and friendly,” sought by my wife and others with similar tastes, wasn’t being provided by ANY of their many brands or models. They replied, at least half-seriously, that “GM doesn’t do cute and friendly.” Well, the 500 does, and then some. Not only is the car terribly cute, but the design is very well executed. The proportions are perfect and there’s not a curve out of place.
The interior is similarly chock full of character, with an oversized speedometer and body-color trim spanning the dash. Materials, certainly a cut or two above those Americans expect from FIAT, are nearly a match for those in the MINI Cooper.
The new FIAT 500 rides on a 90.6-inch wheelbase and is only 139.6 inches long, in both cases about a half-short less lengthy than the MINI. A member of the European A-segment, this is the smallest four-seater the American market has seen in some time. Yet the 500 has more space than the MINI within its back seat—at 5-9, I can fit, if with little room to spare. More cargo volume as well—30 cubes (vs. 24) with the rear seat folded. Magic? No—the 500 is 59.8 inches tall, four more than the MINI and approaching crossover territory. This additional height translates to a much higher driving position than you’ll find in a MINI—or in those cars that thrilled me back in the 1980s. With the seats so high legs don’t need to extend as far forward. The front seat cushions are size XXS and their shape applies far too much pressure mid-thigh even for people with short legs (30-inch inseam here).
While a turbocharged 170-horsepower “Abarth” variant is in the pipeline, at launch only one engine is available, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder good for 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 98 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000. But wait, there’s (allegedly) more: this is the first engine offered in North America with FIAT’s much-hyped “MultiAir” valve control system. By more flexibly controlling the intake valves, this system promises up to 10 percent more peak power, up to 15 percent more low-end torque, up to 25 percent better fuel economy, and up to 60 percent fewer emissions. Given these gains, FIAT claims to have achieved a game-changing breakthrough. (With which they “paid” for a big chunk of Chrysler.)
Then the rubber meets the road. MultiAir provides the most benefit under low engine loads. (I’d say “with small throttle openings,” but with MultiAir there’s no throttle.) Well, even though the 500 weighs very little by today’s standards, the 1.4 struggles to motivate it. Below 4,000 rpm there’s no power. Above 4,000 rpm there’s not much more. So WOT, or close to it, is the typical operating mode, and whatever benefits MultiAir provides are forfeited. As long as I can shift for myself I don’t need much power, but I do need a willingness to rev and, ideally, a zing in the process. Perhaps because of all the extra bits in the valvetrain, the 1.4 doesn’t care to rev and growls unhappily when forced to.
Shifts aren’t satisfying, either. A high-mounted shifter might work in a cargo van, but in a hatchback with sporting pretensions it’s no joy. One didn’t work in the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, and it doesn’t work here. The lever’s somewhat clunky operation wouldn’t be welcome even in a cargo van.
With a low curb weight and a small MultiAir engine, the 500’s fuel economy ought to be stellar. But it’s not. The EPA ratings of 30 city and 38 highway are roughly matched, even exceeded, by some much larger, much more powerful compacts—none of which have MultiAir. And that’s with the five-speed manual. With the six-speed manually-shiftable Aisin automatic, the 500 only manages 27/34. To be fair, the similarly torque-free 1.5-liter four in the similarly light Mazda2 does even worse (29/35 with the manual and 27/33 with a four-cog automatic). But the differences between the two don’t begin to justify the hype surrounding MultiAir. Maybe the benefits will be more evident with a larger engine that doesn’t have to work so hard?
My expectations (or at least hopes) were highest with the 500’s handling. But the high seating position takes a predictable toll. Steering reactions aren’t especially quick. A Mazda2 feels friskier, a MINI more dialed-in and direct. Tossable the 500 is not. Instead, it tries too hard to behave like a larger car. Like the Ford Fiesta, it’s tuned for people who want the appearance of a small, cute car but not the feel of one.
Sadly, and unlike the Ford, what was achieved with the handling was not achieved with the ride. Even the smallest bumps dramatically upset the diminutive FIAT’s composure. The lightly loaded rear end never passes up an opportunity for a game of hopscotch. Granted, I drove the Sport variant, but if the ride is so unsettled that carving a clean line through a less than glass-smooth curve becomes a challenge, then there’s really no point in making the suspension so firm. Of the many cars in my memory bank, including the thoroughly unrefined Mazda Protege5 I own, this one rides the worst. The non-Sport would have to be an order of magnitude less jumpy to not constantly irritate those within it. Hopefully they’ll be able to better sort the suspension for the Abarth, for a 170-horsepower turbocharged four would be a terrible waste in this chassis as-is.
To give credit where credit is due, noise levels within the 500 are bearable, if those of a small car. Despite its low weight, the 500 feels considerably more solid than a Mazda2, if not quite so much as a German-engineered MINI. To put it bluntly, the car doesn’t seem cheap.
Nor is it, with the Sport checking in at $18,000. Still, this is within a few hundred dollars of a similar Ford Fiesta (a larger but less stylish car) and over $6,000 below a comparably equipped Cooper. Adjust for the Brit’s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the FIAT’s price advantage remains about $4,500.
The big question mark, given FIAT’s history, is of course reliability. With the first cars just now arriving at dealers, it’s too soon to say one way or the other. But TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey was designed to provide reliability stats on new models sooner, so perhaps by the end of the year (depending on how soon enough owners participate). You’ll see those results here at TTAC as soon as we have them.
As should be clear by now, the FIAT 500 isn’t the car I’ve been seeking for the past quarter-century. It does nothing especially well and a few things badly. But it’s so endearingly cute that even a MINI appears staid in comparison. Initial sales should be strong. But what about after everyone smitten by the styling buys one? And will the love survive a few months of living with the ride? Roger Penske went down this road not long ago. Ask him how it turned out.
Car provided by Golling FIAT
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data