Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge (BCAS Edition)

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

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.





Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

More by Michael Karesh

Comments
Join the conversation
2 of 91 comments
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.
  • Lou_BC "That’s expensive for a midsize pickup" All of the "offroad" midsize trucks fall in that 65k USD range. The ZR2 is probably the cheapest ( without Bison option).
  • Lou_BC There are a few in my town. They come out on sunny days. I'd rather spend $29k on a square body Chevy
  • Lou_BC I had a 2010 Ford F150 and 2010 Toyota Sienna. The F150 went through 3 sets of brakes and Sienna 2 sets. Similar mileage and 10 year span.4 sets tires on F150. Truck needed a set of rear shocks and front axle seals. The solenoid in the T-case was replaced under warranty. I replaced a "blend door motor" on heater. Sienna needed a water pump and heater blower both on warranty. One TSB then recall on spare tire cable. Has a limp mode due to an engine sensor failure. At 11 years old I had to replace clutch pack in rear diff F150. My ZR2 diesel at 55,000 km. Needs new tires. Duratrac's worn and chewed up. Needed front end alignment (1st time ever on any truck I've owned).Rear brakes worn out. Left pads were to metal. Chevy rear brakes don't like offroad. Weird "inside out" dents in a few spots rear fenders. Typically GM can't really build an offroad truck issue. They won't warranty. Has fender-well liners. Tore off one rear shock protector. Was cheaper to order from GM warehouse through parts supplier than through Chevy dealer. Lots of squeaks and rattles. Infotainment has crashed a few times. Seat heater modual was on recall. One of those post sale retrofit.Local dealer is horrific. If my son can't service or repair it, I'll drive 120 km to the next town. 1st and last Chevy. Love the drivetrain and suspension. Fit and finish mediocre. Dealer sucks.
  • MaintenanceCosts You expect everything on Amazon and eBay to be fake, but it's a shame to see fake stuff on Summit Racing. Glad they pulled it.
Next