2012 FIAT 500 Expert Review
As Well-Heeled As An Italian Supermodel
Not to spoil the rest of this article, but the number one thing that the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth has going for it is its styling. That isn't to say the rest of the car isn't worth writing home about – quite the contrary, actually – but if there's one driving factor that makes you want to run to the Fiat dealership and spend your hard-earned dollars on an Abarth, it's how it looks. You'll read a vast variety of opinions across this great big Interweb about the 500 Abarth's driving dynamics, interior refinement and value, but you'll be hard-pressed to find one critic who considers the Abarth anything less than molto bella.
Smart, then, that the Chrysler Group chose to employ European goddess/supermodel Catrinel Menghia for its seductive Super Bowl ad spot starring the 500 Abarth, ending the 60-second commercial with the phrase, "You'll never forget the first time you see one."
So three months after we first met the North American-spec 500 Abarth in person at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show, we finally got the chance to see if our lust for the cute little Italian runs more than skin-deep. On Fiat's invitation we hit the roads – and track – around Las Vegas to see exactly how powerful the scorpion's sting really is.
Dimensionally, the 500 Abarth is nearly the same as the Sport model on which it's based, save the fact that the front fascia has been pushed out by 2.7 inches (to make room for the larger engine) and that the whole car sits 15 millimeters lower to the ground. Cosmetic changes up front include a blacked-out grille with integrated fog lamps, as well as larger air intakes to better cool the turbocharged engine. Around back, a larger liftgate-mounted spoiler has been added to provide better downforce, and there's a new two-piece fascia with dual exhaust tips and a big ol' diffuser in the middle.
Standard rolling stock is a set of smoke-finished 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 195/45-series Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-season rubber, but if you're smart, you'll skip the standard wheel-and-tire package and upgrade to the 17-inch kit. Here you get decidedly more attractive 12-spoke wheels, rendered in either a dark alloy or bright white finish like the ones on our test car (which we really, really like, by the way) wrapped in stickier 205/40-series Pirelli P-Zero Nero three-season tires. We found these shoes provided plenty of grip while tossing the Abarth around Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, but on the track, we'd really like some proper summer performance tires for maximum grip in the corners.
While we unabashedly love the Abarth's exterior, it's too bad we can't say the same thing about the interior, where the car is already showing signs of its age. Remember, the 500 may have been launched in the United States as a 2011 model, but the car has been around in Europe since 2007, as evidenced by the fact that a lot of the plastics and switchgear feel decidedly last-generation, or at least discount.
Specific interior changes for the Abarth include a turbo boost gauge in the instrument panel, as well as a thicker, leather-wrapped steering wheel with a flat bottom for better hand-to-helm interaction while tossing the hot hatch about. We wish the wheel were smaller in diameter, but our big gripe here are that there's no telescope function to the steering column, and in a sort of typical Italian fashion, the wheel itself is mounted on an inward slant so the top is further from the driver than the bottom.
It's hard to get a comfortable seating position because of this, and drivers with longer legs and shorter arms will feel like they're reaching too far while sitting too close to the pedals. What's more, the high-riding feeling of the standard 500 carries over, and while there's a manual vertical adjustment feature for the driver's seat, we kept trying to force the lever down past its lowest setting since we commonly felt like we were sitting way too high off the ground for a sporting car.
Abarth models come with cloth sport seats as standard kit, though leather seating surfaces are optional. There's no nifty infotainment/navigation screen to be had, but Fiat does offer an optional TomTom unit that can be mounted to the dash just to the right of the gauge cluster. The manual shift knob is also now wrapped in leather and there are aluminum pedal covers, but that aside, there isn't much to separate this car from the base 500. The plastics on the door and center console feel cheap, and little details like the chrome rings around the window switches and the general feel of the buttons aren't great. Strangely, even though the two companies have only recently partnered up, there's just so much in this Fiat that reminds us of the Old Chrysler. You know, Dodge Caliber Chrysler.
But we shouldn't be too hard on the interior. After all, the 500 Abarth's main competitor is the Mini Cooper S, which is an ergonomic mess inside, despite the fact that we've had many years to get used to all of the funny toggle switches and over-sized dinner plate speedometer. The Mini no doubt has a bit more space for passengers and cargo, but we're still torn as to which cabin we'd rather sit in, especially on longer trips. Hot hatches are all about dynamics, though, so we'll forgive the Fiat's lackluster interior and get down to what's really important: driving.
The 500 Abarth is powered by Fiat's 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, which delivers 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of maximum torque. You have to engage Sport mode to get the full 170, otherwise the car will default to only delivering 150 lb-ft of twist. Sport mode also alters the steering and throttle response, and trust us, you'll want to push this button each and every time you start the car.
Off the line in Sport mode there's a huge amount of power available right at initial throttle tip-in, though it quickly fades away as you keep your right foot down. More annoyingly, the clutch pedal offers very little feedback, and it's tough to accurately feel the engagement point for first gear when pulling away from a stop. In most cases, this means you'll be revving the hell out of the little four-banger before setting off, but in some cases, while you're getting used to it, you may just stall. A five-speed manual transmission is the only available cog-swapper, and while a sixth gear would be nice (engineers told us that there simply wasn't room to package an additional gear), performance and fuel economy don't really suffer as a result. Be nice, and you'll manage 28/34 miles per gallon (city/highway).
Fiat claims that the 500 Abarth will sprint to 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds, 0.6 seconds behind a Cooper S. Keep in mind, the Mini may have 21 more horsepower and seven more pound-feet of torque, but it's also 135 pounds heavier. A lot of this can be chalked up to the fact that while both the Fiat and the Mini deliver peak horsepower at 5,500 RPM, the Cooper's torque peaks from 1,700 to 4,500 RPM, while the 500's peak twist is only available from 2,600 to 4,100 RPM. You really need to dig into the Fiat to pull out the most power (hello, turbo lag), whereas with the Mini, it's ready to go more often.
Before we get into the actual handling dynamics, we have to talk about the most surprising part of the Abarth experience: its exhaust. The little hatch has a loud, deep, throaty growl that sounds classically Italian and even a bit Lamborghini-esque when you really wind it up. It grumbles and gargles at idle, with our co-driver pointing out that it almost sounds like a tractor at times – downright agricultural – and while cruising on the highway, it's quiet and reserved. If the styling is our favorite thing about the Abarth, the exhaust is easily our runner-up. Hear for yourself in our Short Cut video below.
Fiat engineers improved upon the 500 Sport's suspension by adding a unique front MacPherson setup with 40 percent stiffer springs and better lower control arms. Out back there's a twist-beam setup with a 40-percent more torsionally rigid rear axle, 20-percent stiffer springs and a 22-millimeter Abarth-specific solid stabilizer bar. All that technical mumbo-jumbo means the Fiat was impeccably well-behaved during our drive from the Las Vegas strip out to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada. Despite its small wheelbase, the suspension isn't overly crashy on city streets or broken pavement, and the ride quality is firm yet comfortable while cruising on the highway. Because the chassis isn't as rigid as other track-focused hatches, there's a bit of body roll in the bends, but we can live with that one caveat if it allows the suspension to be so smooth.
The steering setup, however, is a bit of an issue. In its standard mode, the Abarth's steering suffers from the same problem as the base 500: being slow to respond and not offering much feedback, especially on-center, despite having a 10-percent quicker steering ratio (15.1:1, up from 16.3:1 in the 500 Sport). You'd think that pressing the Sport button would solve this, but all it really does is make the steering feel artificially heavy, still lacking enough feedback to really make it engaging. It's not terrible, and the Abarth's small size and well-sorted suspension still made it tossable along the roads near Red Rock Canyon, but we know that a Cooper S wouldn't take nearly as much steering effort to drive enthusiastically while still returning a similar – if not higher – level of fun.
On the track, things get really interesting. For best results, we spent most of our laps in second and third gear, revving above 4,000 RPM, only shifting into fourth on the front and back straights. And while it's easy to drive the Abarth hard, the 64/36 front/rear weight distribution causes a couple of problems. We commonly hit speeds as high as 90 or 95 mph on the long back straight, and when hitting the brakes to prepare for the next turn, the front end would load up and the little Fiat's butt would wiggle a bit. That heavy front end also means there's noticeable understeer while cornering, and the twist-beam rear suspension will allow the back end to get squirrely at times, but it's all completely safe. You'd really have to try hard to lose control, and the overall experience is more along the lines of hooliganism than precision.
Once again, the natural comparison here is to that of the hot hatch stalwart Mini Cooper S, which Fiat had on hand for us to take on competitive drives. While we weren't able to drive the Mini on the track, our extensive experience with the Cooper S leads us to believe that we'd be able to pull off quicker lap times simply due to the better steering, better power delivery and more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth goes on sale at the end of March, with first deliveries starting in early April. The cost of entry: $22,000, not including $700 for destination. Check every option box and you'll sit just below the $27,000 mark. That seems hefty at first glance, but consider that a similarly equipped Cooper S costs nearly $4,000 more, and the Mini's price can go even higher if you option for things like navigation and the cold weather package, not to mention the seemingly endless styling decisions. While that might make the Abarth seem like a bargain, consider also that the Mini's higher price accurately reflects how much better it is to drive. A base Acura TSX starts at $29,810 and a base BMW 3 Series costs about $5,000 more. Those are very different cars, but they're still entertaining, and not surprisingly, we'd take the BMW every single time.
But we still want the Abarth. So much. On the drive home from Spring Mountain that afternoon, we stopped at a gas station and spent the better part of ten minutes just staring at the thing, examining its lines, dissecting its design, and talking about what little tweaks we'd make once we plunked down our hard-earned cash for one. Does it make mistakes? Many. But then again, even Ms. Menghia must stumble in her high heels from time to time.
New Car Test Drive
How tiny cars should be done: with Italian spirit.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is like the Mini or Volkswagen New Beetle, a modern recreation of a classic. It was introduced in Italy four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 0.5-liter original. Half a million Fiat 500s have been sold in Europe already, spurred by 60 international awards, including European Car of the Year in 2008. Now, as a Chrysler product, the Fiat 500 is being made in Mexico for the North American market.
The 500 is affectionately known by insiders who can pronounce it as the Cinquecento, or 'chin-kway-chento.' Out of the box, it's a contender for fun-to-drive champ, as a four-seat A-class commuter car. We found it to be more fun than its competition, including Mini, Fit, Fiesta, Yaris, and Mazda2.
The Fiat 500 is about 6 inches shorter than a Mini, costs about $4000 less while including Bluetooth, and offers safety with a 5-star crash rating, sporty performance, fuel economy, technology, cool style and good looks. It features seven airbags, a new 1.4-liter engine with something called MultiAir cylinder head technology, state-of-the-art BLUE&ME hands-free technology and a Bose sound system standard in two of the three models, and a great 5-speed gearbox or optional 6-speed manual automatic transmission that's also fun.
There are three models, although versions would be a better word than models, because they're so different, in a slight but meaningful way.
The Sport really means it. If you want a totally cool sports car that gets 34 mpg and can move four young people around, the Fiat 500 Sport is for you. The ride is firm, brakes are amazing, steering is quick and gearbox terrific, so use it all or live with it. The seats are terrific and the special Sport interior is attractive.
The Pop is that rare if not unique model, both the lowest cost and most all-around practical. For $2000 less than the Sport, the Fiat 500 Pop is less aggressive with a better ride. But the extra equipment in the Sport is a great $2000 value, so you're a winner either way, as long as you know what you want. You can also get the automatic transmission in the Pop, for $1000. You lose some Italian flavor with the automatic, but not having to constantly work your left leg in the city, or freeway traffic jams, is a relief.
The Lounge is for those who want their Cinquecento to feel more like a real car, with the automatic transmission, softened ride and steering, added chrome, more amenities, and optional leather.
With the Sport, you get a lot for the $2000 higher price versus the Pop. With the Lounge, at $3000 more than the automatic Pop, you don't get so much. You get to feel like your Fiat 500 is the luxury version. All three models are named well. It would be best to take a test ride of all three before you buy, to feel the differences. Which might not be possible for a while, as Chrysler dealerships have to ramp up to sell the Fiat 500. Production began in March 2011.
The 2012 Fiat 500 comes in Pop, Sport, and Lounge versions. All Fiat 500s use a 1.4-liter engine.
Fiat 500 Pop ($15,500) comes standard with the air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio with auxiliary input, power windows, power door locks, power heated mirrors, cruise control, vehicle information display, fabric seats, 15-inch steel wheels. A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard; a 6-speed automatic ($1000) with manual shifting is optional.
Fiat 500 Sport ($17,500) comes with firmer springs and shock tuning, tighter steering calibration, and a sharpened exhaust note. It comes with the 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. It's distinctively styled, with front and rear fascias with black mesh openings, slightly flared fenders, rocker panel cladding, roof spoiler over the liftgate, and 16-inch aluminum wheels. Smaller touches include red brake calipers, chrome exhaust tip and foglamps. Inside, the Sport features seats in what Fiat calls a Gray/Black interior environment, six-speaker subwoofer Bose sound system, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and BLUE&ME Handsfree Communication technology with USB port and iPod control.
Fiat 500 Lounge ($19,500) is the upscale model, with the 6-speed manual automatic, a fixed glass roof that makes it feel bigger inside, premium fabric seats, Sirius satellite radio, 15-inch aluminum wheels with wagonwheel spokes, and more trim and chrome on the outside. It has the same softer suspension, steering, and body panels as the Pop.
Safety equipment includes seven air bags, reactive head restraints, electronic stability control, and ABS with brake-force distribution, brake assist, and brake override.
If ever a picture of a car were worth a thousand words, the Fiat 500 is it. Take a good look, and you'll have a feeling of your own and won't need our words. But you have to look closer to see the distinctions in the models, which are worth pointing out.
The Fiat 500 is the epitome of tidy. Granted, it's easier to be tidy when there's less to deal with, and the Fiat is so small there isn't much. But the Sport, especially, is perfect. There's a chrome strip on the nose like a pencil-thin moustache, that the Cinquecento's designer added just because without it, he said, the car's styling was too perfect. Rarely does any manufacturer understand what clean really means, but Italians do. For that reason alone we need them back in North America, to be a good influence.
The face of the Fiat 500, with round halogen projector headlamps and parking lights, combines the family resemblance of other Fiat models sold in Italy, with a modern interpretation of the original Cinquecento, imported to the U.S. as a 600cc model back in the 1960s. No one in North America remembers, of course; but no matter. It's a winning European design that's been brought to the U.S. after four years.
Simplicity and strength are conveyed, especially on the Sport with its unique fascia, thanks to very short overhangs and muscular fenders, with the front fascia tapering outward to large wheel arches. On the Sport, the best looking model, there's a horizontal cooling duct of black mesh that adds racy character, while the lower mesh grille integrates foglamps. The liftgate spoiler is a must.
The distinctiveness of the Fiat 500's shape appears from the profile view, more than front or rear. The black window outline on the Sport enhances the good looks of the all-business roofline, while the chrome on the Lounge, especially those chrome mirrors and door handles, detracts from it. The Sport also has rocker-panel cladding that isn't bad, as rocker-panel cladding goes.
The rear view is stylized by a chrome license-plate brow, common in cars today, but true to the original Cinquecento that was inspired by a bicycle seat, believe it or not. The healthy rear taillamps are located between the edges of the liftgate and follow the door's vertical cutline. For a contemporary look, the rear glass spans the width of the liftgate and meets cleanly at the pillar. The Lounge has a chrome rear bumper that adds a touch from the '50s.
Also, we might add that the coefficient of drag is 0.35, which is darn good for a little box of a car.
The original 500 had a canvas roof that's legendary, and today's 500 features an optional dark glass roof that copies the style. The optional sunroof is available as fixed or powered.
There are five separate wheel designs of 15 or 16 inches, with at least three of them good-looking and eye-catching, and 14 vivid colors to choose from. Try Nero (black), Rosso (red), Bianco (white), Azzurro (blue), Grigio (gray), Argento (silver), Giallo (yellow), Verde Chiaro (light green), Rame (copper), Verde Oliva (olive green), Rosso Brillante (tri-coat pearl red), Bianco Perla (pearl white), and Mocha Latte and Espresso, which apparently need no translation from Italian.
If the exterior is the epitome of tidy, the interior is the epitome of neat. As Roberto Giolito, the head of Fiat Style says, it delivers absolutely everything that is required and nothing more. Unlike, say, the too-cute Mini and too-boring Yaris.
The Fiat 500 instrument panel gives the Fiat the visual feel of a sports car, except for its one flaw: the tachometer is combined with the speedometer, and this takes some fun out of driving and shifting through the gears, in particular with the Sport, because it ought to have a tach of its own. The tachometer ring is inside the speedo ring, and almost all of the space inside the ring is taken up by LCD information. So all that's left is the tip of a tach needle moving around a chrome ring against small white numbers that are hard to read, especially past 6000 where the numbers are red. And the stub of the speedometer needle, with all its numbers to 140 mph, moves around outside that. It's almost as confusing to the eye as it is to the brain to read about here.
Also, if the Fiat were as simple as they say it is, the radio would have a dial to tune stations, and not a button that you have to hold your finger on and take your eye off the road to watch the digital number tick along.
Everything else is real good, especially the metal instrument panel painted the same color as the car. And the seats, all four upholsteries, are really great. Standard cloth, premium cloth, sport cloth. It may be referred to as cloth, but it doesn't look like cloth. They're all different fabrics, all satisfying, as much like leather as cloth can feel. There's also optional premium leather, but the other seats are so sharp that leather isn't missed. And the fit is just right, although other reviews have complained that there's not enough bolstering in the Sport seats.
The top of the dash is vinyl and its design as simple as it gets: it's just there, and doesn't try to be anything, like for example the new Focus that tries to be a cockpit surrounding the driver. There are good armrests for both of the driver's elbows when holding the perfectly sized leather-wrapped steering wheel at 9 and 3 o'clock. The Sport shift knob is about as big and round and chrome as you can get away with. Doors cleverly lock with an inward push of the handles. And it's a little car with big long deep door pockets, how about that.
The steering wheel tilts to adjust, and there's all the legroom in front that you need, although the driver's right knee nestles against the console. Still, one 6-foot, 6-inch driver said he fit okay in the 500. The climate and audio systems and vents are in the center over the console, but it's not exactly a center stack, it's less than that, while still being complete. The shift lever, whether manual stick or autostick, rises from the bottom of the dash, a forward place where it's a more natural reach.
Legroom in the rear is 31.7 inches, obviously not much; we barely squeezed our briefcase behind the driver's seat. However, with the front seats slid forward, the rear legroom is not half-bad; but that's because the rear seat is a bench, so passengers sit upright. Fiat says it's roomy for two adults, and we wonder what species they mean, certainly not two adult humans. Young people running around town might not mind the squeeze, nor the climb into or out of the rear seat. With the rear seats up, you might be able to get two carry-on bags in the back. Drop the seats and it's a little hatchback with lots of room to throw small stuff in, through the liftgate.
The glass roof in the Lounge not only makes the interior feel more airy, it raises the ceiling, over the headliner or optional sunroof. There are three cupholders in front and two in back, and the glovebox is ample. Navigation is optional by TomTom, and handsfree communication, standard on Sport and Lounge, is by Blue&Me.
The three Fiat 500 models, Sport, Pop, Lounge, are quite different in the way they drive. Same power, but different brakes, handling and transmissions.
Let's start with the Sport, which is truly sporty, with a firm ride, thanks to stiffer springs and shock tuning, firmer brakes, and quicker steering. It all adds up to a wonderfully responsive car, although the ride isn't as relaxing as the Pop or Lounge, especially over bumpy roads or in the city. But if play is what you like, you'll have a blast in the Sport.
The 5-speed gearbox is a joy to shift, with a throw that's short, quick and secure. Its linkage is by a cable, a method that generally is less sharp, but in the Sport's case, we felt no loss. We banged shifts left and right, even hard downshifts into first, and the gearbox loved it as much as we did. The forward lever location is ergonomically natural, and that adds to the neatness of it all. The clutch is light. We never missed, never fumbled, and always got the heel-and-toe, as well. It doesn't often happen that nicely, out of the box. It's that Italian touch.
The Sport's red brake calipers can be seen through the 16-inch wheels in a color called Carbide and make a statement that's backed up by braking performance. Stopping in the Sport is significantly more responsive than in the Pop and Lounge, which is good when you're driving in a sporty manner, but it requires a soft touch around town. The Pop and Lounge do that soft touch for you. With 10.1-inch front and 9.4-inch rear rotors, and so little weight to bring down, getting stopped in time is never a worry.
The 6-speed manual automatic transmission is available even on the Sport, and it too is a transmission you can play with (although we think if you're going for a Sport in the first place, go all the way). The lever location is the same in the automatic as it is in the manual (although the knob isn't), so it feels like a stick shift. The Lounge comes standard with the automatic, and the Pop works well with it, as a compromise. There's a sport mode for the automatic transmission that sharpens and delays the shifts nicely, without too much override, so you'll still have a sporty little car, with the manual automatic Chrysler the Autostick. As they have the right to do, having invented sequential manual shifting of the automatic transmission in 1995, with the Dodge Stratus.
In the Lounge, the first thing you notice is how much looser and easier the steering is, then the same with the ride, and the brakes. In the city, this is good. The more relaxed steering makes the whole car feel a bit bigger, but the fixed glass roof in the Lounge has something to do with that, too.
The 1.4-liter engine is the same on all models. It features a reinvention of the cylinder head that's called MultiAir technology, to get 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque. MultiAir is a complex system that drives the intake valves by oil pressure actuators, triggered by electronic control: it's truly continuously variable valve timing. One big downside is that premium fuel is recommended, although not required, but we still wonder: how much power is lost with regular fuel, and how much will engine longevity be affected? So we'd use the premium.
Chrysler estimates 30 City/38 Highway miles per gallon, but it might be better than that; we got 34.2 mpg, revving it high and running it hard.
Our day-long test took place over winding and uncrowded roads east of San Diego (in the Sport), and around the city in the Pop and Lounge.
Passing on two-lanes, in sport mode, there was enough acceleration to work with. Shifting gears to stay in the powerband makes it fun. It's a momentum machine. It comes on at 4000 rpm and redlines at 6800, a point that's unfortunately hard to judge because of the difficulty of reading the tachometer, especially the red numbers and lines over 6000 rpm. At least the rev limiter cuts fuel gently; the engine just flattens at 6800, it doesn't nose-dive.
One treat is that the engine feels like it's ready to shift at 5000 rpm, and it certainly can be shifted there and still maintain momentum, but it just keeps putting out for another 2000 rpm, pleasantly surprising you. Another pleasing aspect is that 80 mph in 5th gear is only 3300 rpm, and on level ground it glides fairly effortlessly at that speed. Quietly too, thanks to hydraulic engine mounts and extra sound deadening material.
Ninety miles per hour in 4th gear is still only 5000 rpm. Do the math and that's a theoretical top speed of 153 mph in 4th gear; fat chance, but the sweet engine fools you into thinking it might just be capable.
The new Fiat 500 creates a niche of its own: a tiny, high-mileage, low-cost, four-seat car that has the style and performance of an Italian sports car, with a 5-star crash rating. It's 6 inches shorter than a Mini and about $4000 cheaper, while bringing a fun-factor that similar Asian cars can't match.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Cinquecento models near San Diego, California.
Fiat 500 Pop ($15,500); Sport ($17,500); Lounge ($19,500).
Options As Tested
Fiat 500 Sport ($17,500).
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