It is no secret that The Garage is excited about the return of Fiat to North America. While we have already spent valuable seat time and reviewed the 500C (C for Cabrio), we were still interested in spending a week with the stronger-selling standard 500 hatchback-especially a Sport model with a manual transmission. While it is true that Fiat 500 sales have not quite met company expectations, but from my perspective, it is not because of anything to do with the car itself. Instead, the slow build-up of exclusive Fiat Studios (do not call them dealers) and a wait-and-see approach by wary American car buyers are more to blame.
Business aside, the Fiat 500 looks fantastic, especially in Sport guise. To be sure, it is one of the smallest cars sold in the US, but at first glance it is easy to see the 500 is a far more practical choice than the Smart ForTwo or Scion iQ. As petite and cute the 500 may be, as a guy I never felt silly or self-conscious of myself driving or arriving anywhere in it. Quite the contrary. The 500 Sport features serious-looking 16″ alloys, red brake calipers, chrome exhaust tip and a rear spoiler to set it apart from plainer 500’s. While I have never cared for the color olive on any car, our 500 Sport finished in Verde Oliva (Olive Green) simply captivated me. While I joked that against the red brake calipers and center wheel trim the car recalled a rolling martini olive, the truth was I was in love with the looks of the 500. The mix of Italian retro with just the right amount of sport added, wrapped up in a color that was all about 1960’s mod and attitude pushed all the right buttons with me.
Opening the door to our 500 Sport test car, the Mod theme was still in full swing. With a huge swatch of the dash in olive green contrasted to gray and tobacco brown sport seats, the amount of style and swagger packed into such a tiny space impressed me to no end. If the cast of Mad Men needed an urban runabout, they would all buy Fiat 500 Sports that looked just like our test car. You feel just a little cooler than you really are just by being inside the 500.
The 500’s gauge cluster features one binnacle with a tachometer being the largest, with a smaller speedometer inside that, with an LCD display at the center. It’s a little unconventional, but fairly easy to get used to. I was disappointed that on the Sport, Fiat chose a rather plain, nondescript font for the numbers on the dials instead of the cool retro font I saw on our 500C. In the 500, the driver sits up high, sort of like in the original Saab 900. The Sport seats were comfortable and well-bolstered. The small, one-line LCD stereo display is only capable of displaying a limited amount of info, especially when you are tuned to SiriusXM satellite radio. Without a proper center armrest/console, the 500 lacks any option to conceal any belongings except for the glovebox. To make matters worse, the glovebox of our test car was already half full with an optional TomTom GPS navigation unit that pops into a port on top of the dash. It is easily the worst GPS unit I have ever come upon, and was essentially useless.
The 500 Sport is powered by a 1.4L four cylinder rated at 101hp. So no, you’re not going to impress the guys at Muscle Car night. But the 500 fires up with a hint of attitude, and equipped with our car’s standard 5-speed manual transmission, the car was a pleasure to scoot around town in, with just enough torque off the line and pep to enjoy yourself. On the highway you have to work the engine a bit, but it never complains, and the five-speed manual was a pleasure to shift. While I enjoyed our automatic-equipped 500C Lounge, the 500 Sport is easily my favorite, with quicker steering, firmed up suspension and the manual tranny making for a very rewarding experience at the wheel. And while I complained the 500C’s gas mileage was pretty unremarkable, our 500 Sport offered far more impressive EPA mileage figures of 30/38 MPG city/highway.
While the base Fiat 500 Pop starts at $15,500USD, the mid-range Sport with its appearance and handling enhancements start at $17,500. Standard equipment includes remote entry, cruise control, Bose stereo, Blue&Me hands-free communication, steering wheel audio controls, and trip computer. Our test car was optioned with the Safety & Convenience Package (auto climate control, alarm), Safety & Sound Package (SiriusXM satellite radio, and the gorgeous gray/brown interior), and the awful TomTom navigation. For the $400 Fiat is charging you for the nav, do yourself a favor and buy an iPhone. As equipped, and including destination charges, our Fiat 500 Sport cost a total of $19,000.
For buyers seeking a low-cost, frugal sub-compact car, the choices seem to be multiplying year by year, while in the past North American buyers seeking such a car were met with very limited choices, and not particularly great choices at that. But with the Fiat 500, we have a very good, and quite interesting choice. For sure, you can make your case that the Honda Fit or Nissan Versa offers far more practicality, and I would agree with you. For a subcompact driver’s car, the Mazda2 is a compelling, and cheaper alternative. Yet none of these cars come close to the charisma and character the 500 Sport has on tap. And compared to the equally charismatic MINI Cooper, the 500 is an absolute steal. In sum, you would be hard-pressed to find a car packing so much fun and personality at this price than the Fiat 500.
Sure, first year sales fell far short of Fiat’s expectations. But as any Italian will tell you, the perfect tomato sauce takes time, and being a newcomer in North America, the recipe for success is right, it will just take time.