2012 Fiat 500 SportPosted on June 27th, 2011
Stylish subcompact with 38 mpg fuel economy
By Nina Russin
The Fiat 500 Sport parked in my driveway brings forth memories of Topo Gigio: the mouse puppet from Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show in the 1960s. It isn’t just the Fiat’s whiskers and logo face, or the fact that both Topo and the original Cincquecento date back to the same era.
Just as the puppet created by Maria Perego of Milan charmed television viewers, the new Fiat 500 hatchback is irresistibly cute. Styling combines retro and contemporary elements in surprisingly harmonious fashion. It is also quintessentially Italian, setting the car apart from other entries in the A segment.
Most appealing in the new Cinquecento’s affordability: the base model starts under $16,000. The test car is the midgrade Sport, which has larger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension. MSRP is $17,500, not including the $500 destination charge.
Power comes from a single overhead cam four-cylinder engine rated at 101 horsepower, with 98 foot-pounds of torque. Because of its high compression ratio, the manufacturer recommends running 91 octane fuel, although regular is acceptable.
A five-speed manual gearbox, standard on the Sport, enables drivers to make better use of the engine’s available power than the optional six-speed automatic. It also yields better fuel economy: about three miles per gallon on average according to EPA estimates.
Test drive in Phoenix
This week was my second time behind the wheel of the new Fiat, having driven the open-air version in New York a month ago. While I wasn’t completely sold on the Cabrio, I found the hatchback to be an appealing and more practical package.
The Cabrio I drove was the upscale Lounge grade with the automatic transmission. The car simply didn’t have enough low-end power for climbing hills. The manual gearbox allows the driver to shift later, using all of the available torque in challenging situations.
Buyers who want the open-air model also sacrifice storage space, which is not particularly abundant on a car of this size. While the hatchback is too small to meet our bicycle-friendly standards, it can hold a reasonable amount of cargo with the rear seats folded down. For example, it is much easier to load luggage in for a weekend road trip.
Finally, the standard cloth upholstery on the Sport is more practical for active audiences than leather. Cloth is also less susceptible to heat: something I appreciate in the middle of an Arizona summer.
A mouse that roars
I apologize for referencing another movie from the 1950s which is probably unfamiliar to younger readers. In my defense, I’m a huge Peter Sellers fan, and the analogy fits. In the movie, an army from a small mythical town in the Swiss Alps declares war on the United States. To their surprise, they find themselves winning.
Although the Fiat’s engine is quite small by American standards, it holds its own against more powerful cars because the chassis is very light. Curb weight for the manual transmission model is 2363 pounds.
What the Fiat 500 lacks in mass, it more than makes up for in maneuverability. It’s an ideal car for weaving through traffic on inner-city streets, and can hold its own on the highway.
The manual gearbox is easy to shift, with a reverse lockout ring that serves as an extra safety precaution. The clutch pedal is light enough to make driving in traffic relatively easy.
Visibility around the perimeter is good, thanks to a convex insert on the driver’s side mirror. The convex mirror enables the driver to monitor several lanes of traffic when merging onto the highway, and see the back corner of the car. The latter is especially important, since the location of the B pillars limits over-the-shoulder visibility.
I would recommend buyers considering the base model upgrade from the standard 15-inch wheels to 16-inch rims, which come standard on the Sport. The larger wheels make the chassis considerably more stable at higher speeds, especially when cornering. The sport-tuned suspension on the Sport model is a noticeable improvement from the twist beam rear axle on the Pop and Lounge grades.
An electric power steering system is more compact than a hydraulic setup and keeps weight off the chassis. It seems nicely tuned to the car, offering plenty of assist on low speeds with decent on-center response on the highway.
Four-wheel disc brakes stop the car in a firm, linear fashion. I was happy to find rear discs on the Fiat, since many sub- $20,000 models have drums on the rear axle. The discs are self-cleaning, and don’t hold water as drums can, so they perform much better in rain and snow. They are also much easier to service.
Road trip to Tucson
After driving the car around Phoenix for a day or two, I headed south to Tucson. I was anxious to see how the Fiat would perform on the open road, in an area where full-sized trucks far outnumber compact passenger cars.
Keeping weight out of the chassis meant sacrificing some of the sound insulation which would have made the interior quieter. The car’s small wheels also contribute to noise intrusion in the passenger compartment, which is noticeable on the highway.
The Fiat has enough power to keep up with traffic on the 75 mile-per-hour road between Phoenix and Tucson. I had no problems passing slower cars along the way.
Fuel economy was in line with EPA estimates. I averaged 35 miles-per-gallon for the 280-mile test drive.
Stylists wisely kept knobs and buttons on the Fiat’s instrument panel sparse, making the small interior appear more spacious than it actually is. The gauge cluster combines a lot of functions within a small display, thanks to a programmable digital screen inside the speedometer. I found both the gauge cluster and center stack display easy to read in bright sunlight and after dark.
An optional sunroof on the test car ($850) brought some additional ambient light inside the car, which brightened up the dark interior.
The front seats have plenty of room for adults of all sizes. My husband, who is six feet tall, felt comfortable in the passenger seat. The rear seats are functional for children and smaller adults.
Cupholders at the base of the center stack are large enough for soda cans, but cannot hold larger water bottles. Map pockets in the doors and to either side of the center stack hold small documents. The glovebox is large enough to hold some valuables, in addition to the owner’s manual and registration documents.
A 12-volt power point recharges portable electronic devices. Bluetooth interface is standard, as is a USB port for iPod connectivity. A TomTom navigation system on the test car is a $400 option.
The rear seats are easy to fold down using levers on the seatbacks. They will not fold completely flat without removing the headrests, but even with the uneven floor, the cargo area is easy to load up.
All models come with front, side, side curtain and driver’s knee airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, active front head restraints and daytime running lamps.
Fiat builds the 500 at Chrysler’s Toluca, Mexico assembly plant.
Likes: An affordable, stylish subcompact hatchback with a high level of standard safety features, exceptional fuel economy and a versatile interior.
Dislikes: Cupholders are too small for water bottles. Noisy interior, especially when driving at highway speeds.
Model: 500 Sport
Base price: $17,500
As tested: $19,750
Horsepower: 101 Hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 98 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 30/38 mpg city/highway
Leave a reply