Throw “Sport” on a car, and I’m going to expect certain things from it. So I wasn’t kind to the first FIAT 500 I reviewed. But, as with people, I’m always willing to give a car a second take from a more amenable angle. To avoid bits I didn’t care for, I requested the base-level “Pop” trim with an automatic transmission. Chrysler counter-offered a top-level Lounge. In brown. With brown leather. Not quite what I asked for, but as a member of the Brown Car Appreciation Society (sans card, alas) I felt duty bound to accept.
Dip a 500 in Espresso Metallic and fit it with multi-spoke alloys (a $300 extra), and no one will think it an economy car. The look is as upscale as the Scion iQ’s is not. And this is before opening the door to find seats upholstered in chocolate brown leather, with matching trim on the doors and dash. The ivory steering wheel, upper seatbacks, and control panels provide a classy contrast while keeping the whole from seeming too serious or somber. Most definitely lounge-worthy.
Sadly, all parts of the 500 can’t deliver on this initial impression. Work the manual height adjuster in an attempt to lower the high-mounted seat, and the degree of flex suggests it’s not long for this world. Then again, the seat is so high in its lowest position that few people will ever use this adjuster. The buttons for the HVAC and audio feel very much like those of a sub-$20k car (even though this example wasn’t). Drive down any but the smoothest roads, and the doors constantly scratch against their seals. Perhaps press cars aren’t prepped as thoroughly as conventional wisdom suggests? A few dabs of a suitable lube might have gone a long way.
Thanks to the 500’s unsportily high seating position, the view forward is open. As is the view upward through the Lounge’s standard large fixed glass roof panel (much of the utility of the optional sunroof, without the rattles and leaks). The view rearward, not so much, as the B- and C-pillars are thick and close. But with so little car back there the Luxury Leather Package’s rear obstacle detection is nevertheless pointless. The driver-side spotter mirror is of much more use, enabling fear-free lane changes to the left, even if it does rob some scarce real estate within the mini-compact mirror pods. Whatever the trim level, the ergonomics are, well, Italian. The shifter remains too high and too far forward, but with the automatic this isn’t an issue. Despite the intimate interior, the logic-defying myriad small buttons for the BOSE audio system (thumping sub beneath the passenger seat) are just beyond reach. Would a few large knobs close at hand cramp the 500’s style? The “sport” button is close at hand, but all it does is bump the steering effort without reducing steering numbness and force the transmission to hold gears far too long for casual around-town use. We’re lounging this time around, so absolutely no need for this.
The Lounge’s seat is the same as the Sport’s, but with no clutch requiring frequent full leg extensions the overly prominent under-thigh bulge didn’t bother me. In fact, nothing really bothered me, though my diminutive rear seat occupants did complain about the car’s hard round headrests.
The 500’s 101-horsepower 1.4-liter engine was—surprise—no match for a Ford GT rapidly approaching in my rearview on I-75. Even with the rightmost pedal pressed hard to the floor there’s little thrust at highway speeds. Bill Ford’s supercharged supercar blew by without even realizing I was there. But up to 45 or so there’s easily adequate power. With the Lounge’s mandatory automatic I felt far less need to dispatch the engine anywhere near its redline (though the autobox is more than happy to take it there), and the MultiAir mill sounded much less thrashy as a result. The trip computer reported 33-35 MPG in the suburbs, dipping into the high 20s when my right foot lapsed out of lounge mode. Not bad, but at best a match for the most efficient cars one or two size classes up, despite FIAT’s highly touted throttle-less intake technology. Handling might not be sporty, but it is effortlessly pleasant. And the standard suspension delivers a livable ride, if still a bit choppy and bouncy.
Even if the FIAT 500 Lounge isn’t especially fun to drive, it is nevertheless thoroughly fun (when not hopelessly attempting to match pace with a supercar). The styling is engagingly cute (chics dig it) yet—in brown—also elegant. In Lounge form the car’s easygoing driving character fits. Pulling up to Trader Joe’s with my three chattering progeny, and tight on time, I announced, “All right you clowns, out of the clown car.” My youngest almost died from laughter in the parking lot. That was just the first of four stops on the weekly shopping expedition. Even with all seats occupied, my cargo anxiety heightened by what might well be the world’s smallest cargo cover, and some sale items bought by the dozen, everything fit with room to spare. In the $21,800 500 Lounge BCAS Edition, the entire experience seemed much less of a chore.
Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.