2012 Fiat 500 Review

2012 Fiat 500 - From eclectic Pop to snooty Gucci to brash Abarth, the 500 is a small car with a big personality.


Vehicle Tested
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
Base Price: $22,000
At-Tested Price: $26,200
Built in Mexico.

Leather-Trimmed Buck Seats
Safety and Convenience Package
Mirror Cap
TomTom Navigation System
17-Inch Alloy Wheels

Engine: Turbocharged 1.4-liter I4
Transmission: Six-Speed Manual
Drive Wheels: Front-Wheel Drive

Wildly popular in Europe, the Fiat 500 hit U.S. shores last year thanks to the Italian automaker's  purchase of Chrysler. As such, the 500 is sold in most major US markets at about 130 Fiat-branded dealerships. The 500 is a micro car, meaning it's smaller than a subcompact. It is offered as a two-door hatchback or two-door convertible. Competitors include the Mazda 2, MINI Cooper, Scion iQ, Toyota Yaris and new Chevrolet Spark.

All 500 models are front drive. The lineup includes Pop, Sport, Lounge, Gucci, and high-performance Abarth models. All save the Abarth are powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 101 horsepower. The Abarth gets a turbocharged version of that engine that produces 160 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all models. A six-speed automatic is optional on everything except for the Abarth.

Standard safety features include antilock four-wheel disc brakes, stability control, front-seat active head restraints, tire-pressure monitor, daytime running lights and dual-front, front-side and driver-knee airbags. Hatchback models get curtain-side airbags and convertibles get rear-obstacle detection.

Pop hatchback lists for $15,550 and $19,500 for convertible. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, interior air filter, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, front bucket seats, height-adjustable driver seat, center console, split-folding rear seat, heated power mirrors, power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with digital-media player connection, trip computer, variable-intermittent wipers, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer, floormats, theft-deterrent system, 185/55R15 tires and wheel covers. Convertibles add Bluetooth cell-phone connection and power convertible top.

Sport is only available as a hatchback and is offered at $17,500. Additional standard equipment includes leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated radio controls, Bose sound system, USB port, Bluetooth cell-phone connection, fog lights, rear spoiler, sport suspension, 195/45R16 tires and alloy wheels.

Lounge comes in at $18,500 for hatchback and $22,500 for convertible. It adds to the Sport six-speed automatic transmission, automatic climate control, satellite radio and fixed glass roof panel on hatchback models. It ditches the Sport's rear spoiler, sport suspension and larger tires.

The Gucci lists for $19,500 as a hatch and $23,500 as a ragtop. It adds to the Lounge leather/cloth upholstery, heated front seats, power sunroof on hatchback and unique interior and exterior trim. Like the Sport, the $22,500 Abarth is only available as a hatchback. It adds to the Sport the turbocharged engine, uprated brakes and performance suspension.

Stand-alone options include a portable navigation system, power sunroof for hatchbacks, windblocker for convertibles, unique paint and trim combinations and 205/40R17 wheels on the Abarth. The Fiat 500 has a destination charge of $700 and is built in Mexico.

Get Up and Go
  The 101-horsepower four provides adequate acceleration and nothing more. The run from 0 to 60 mph takes about 10 seconds with the manual transmission model. That's not unexpected in this class. The engine never feels energetic and has lethargic passing response when equipped with the automatic. Abarth acceleration is much sprightlier. That model will run from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and that's on par with the MINI Cooper S and significantly faster than other competitors.

Regardless of engine, the five-speed manual has a disconnected feel that's off putting. Still, it's easy to shift quickly and the clutch has solid take-up feel. Automatic transmission shifts smoothly and downshifts promptly.

As you might expect, Fuel economy is a plus. The normally aspirated models are rated at 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway and the Abarth carries 28/34 mpg ratings. Interestingly, Fiat recommends premium-grade gasoline for all models.

Perhaps more in the 500 than in a larger car, real-world fuel economy is a function of driving style. Given a light throttle foot and plenty of coast-down time at stoplights, the 500 can average 35 mpg around town and nearly 40 on the highway. However, dig deep in to the throttle away from stoplights and mash on the brakes coming to a stop, and economy will drop into the high 20s -- still quite respectable, especially on the Abarth model.

On the Road  The 500 is a light car with a short wheelbase, that's a recipe for a rough ride. Thankfully that's not the case in most models. Pop, Lounge and Gucci ride quite comfortably and the suspension does an excellent job of minimizing pavement imperfections. Step up to the Sport, with its low-profile tires and sport-tuned suspension, and the ride grows firmer, though remains more than acceptable for most tastes. Abarth's ride borders on harsh, but that's expected for this single-minded enthusiast offering.

The 500 falls short of the nimble and athletic moves of the MINI Cooper but does offer a surprising amount of agility -- regardless of model. The small size makes the 500 easy to drive in traffic and a joy to park. Steering is nicely weighted and the brakes have great stopping power. Abarth models are downright sporty and have more in common with a go-kart than an economy coupe.

The base engine is respectably quiet and refined. Abarth growls like a caged mountain lion. Both models could use a slightly taller final gear for more relaxed highway cruising.

Behind the Wheel  Fiat's edgy-yet-retro interior comes off much more user friendly than a similar design in the MINI Cooper. Materials are appropriate for the price and compare favorably to the utilitarian Scion iQ or Toyota Yaris.

The cleverly designed instrument cluster features a large speedometer that surrounds a smaller tachometer and a smaller-still information center. All area easily legible and certainly make the best use of a small space. Center-stack controls are fairly straight forward, but the audio unit could use a second dial for station tuning. Window switches at the center of the dashboard disappoint, but frankly there's not much room on the door panels.

Afterthought available navigation pod is a Band-Aid fix at best. While the solution is better than using a mobile phone or hand-held unit, a touch-screen display system would be preferred -- especially given this vehicles intended demographic.

Front seats are firm and supportive, more so in the Sport and Abarth. Seating position is upright. Leg room and head room are adequate and no more. Taller folk will want to tick the "sunroof" delete box as that option  cuts into head room considerably. Stubby center armrest is better than nothing, but not by much. Forward visibility is excellent, thanks to a higher than expected seating position and thin roof pillars. Convertible models have a smallish back window and thicker rear pillars that conspire to create a troublesome blind spot.

Back seats are best suited for children, but can accommodate adults if you move the front seats well forward. Getting in and out is easier than expected with slide-and-tilt front seats.

Cargo space is limited on both models, but especially tight on convertibles. Back seats fold flat but create a floor hump that precludes laying long items flat. Interior storage is surprisingly good with a large glove box and a couple of center bins.

Bottom Line  In a sea of appliance-like offerings, the Fiat 500 is a small car with personality. It's not perfect, but it's fun and sporty. Prices are quite affordable and there's a model to fit just about any budget.

Abarth isn't the pocket rocket the commercials make it out to be, but it's quite nimble and fun to drive. Plus it is quite affordable at just a bit more than $22K.

Specifications 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2-door hatchback
Turbocharged DOHC I4
Wheelbase, in.
90.6Size, liters/cu. in.
1.4 / 83
Length, in.
Horsepower160 @ 5500
Width, in.64.1
Torque (lb.-ft.) 170 @ 2500
Height, in.58.7Transmission6-Speed Manual
Weight, lbs.
28 city / 34 highway
Cargo Capacity, cu. ft.
Fuel Capacity, gal.
Seating Capacity
4 years / 50,000 miles
Front Head Room, in.
Front Leg Room, in.
4 years / 50,000 miles
Second-Row Head Room, in.
Free Roadside Assistance
4 years / Unlimited miles
Second-Row Leg Room, in.
Free Scheduled Maintenance

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.