Need to stand out in a big way while cruising inside diminutive dimensions? Something that fellow road warriors may take a double take thanks to a quirkiness factor? And why not add a pinch of extra under-hood punch.
Fiat's 2013 500 turbo hatchback may just fit that bill. While not the roomiest or least expensive offering in the suddenly growing potpourri of worthy small transports, it's chuck full of 'happy factor' within the friendly confines three-door hatchback environment.
Not dissimilar to Volkswagen's iconic Beetle or Chrysler's now retired PT Cruiser, Fiat's 500 is an affordable statement for those craving creative transports.
Italian automaker Fiat ("Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino") returned to the U.S. shores in the spring of 2011 with the 2012-model year front-wheel-drive Fiat 500 mini or micro vehicle (one step under a traditional subcompact). Prior to 2012, the last time new Fiats were sold the U.S. was when the Chicago Cubs and then Manager Don Zimmer found themselves in unfamiliar post-season play territory against the pesky, persistent Padres of San Diego.
It's been over a year since a front-drive Fiat 500 found its way to the test driveway. The first go around featured the standard 1.4-liter inline four cylinder cranking out a ho-hum 101 horses. While 500's comparatively feathery 2,400 pounds helps keep things rolling, so too does the much appreciated 1.4-liter multi-air in-line four-cylinder turbo engine this review covers. Turbo charging takes advantage of compressed air feed into engine cylinders for a more potent air/fuel combustion delivering enhanced power without added cylinders.
With the turbo comes 34 more horses resulting in better get-up-and-go especially with an easy-shifting, standard five-speed manual. The 1.4 naturally-aspirated engine comes with the choice of a standard five-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic with overdrive. Both engines are manufactured in Dundee Michigan outside Detroit.
Since the 500 hatchbacks arrival, additional quirky offshoots joined in the fun, including a cute 500c ('c' denoting convertible cabriolet) and all-electric plug-in version (the 500e). For those seeking four side doors, Fiat dealerships now sport the five-door 500L ('L' designates long in this case along with a people-friendly back seat).
Adding another twist to the current array of 500s is the performance-tuned Abarth version (available in hatchback and convertible), gaining even more strength from a larger 160-horsepower turbo powertrain then the base turbo tester this week. In the upcoming 2014 model year, Fiat 500 adds limited-edition, fashionably tailored "GQ" variant. Fiat is also the parent company of high-performance, low volume Italian auto builders Alpha Romeo, Maserati and Alpha Romeo. Fiat took control of Chrysler Corp LLC in 2011.
The six-county Chicago area supports four Fiat dealerships including Zeigler Fiat in Schaumburg, Fields Fiat of Highland Park, Bettenhausen Fiat of Tinley Park and Fiat of Chicago downtown on Randolph Street.
Diminutive 16-inch all-season performance wheels and minimal front and rear overhangs keep the small theme going. While 16-inchers are small enough, 15-inch versions come standard in two of the naturally aspirated hatchback trims. Expect tire feedback noise at high speeds in this rather narrow body style. The small hood contrasts with relatively large, circular housing of bi-function halogen projector headlamps. Gloss black headlamp, tail lamp and parking lamp bezels are turbo exclusives as are red-painted brake calipers. Chrome tip plating adorns the single exhaust. The rear hatch follows the arc of the curvaceous rear 'C' pillar. Sunroofs are optional in turbo and non-turbo hatchbacks alike.
Our turbo tester included a $19,500 starting price. Adding a $1,500 'Beats' audio package with subwoofer approved by Rapper Dr. Dre and $850 convenience group (heated front seats, one-year satellite radio subscription and automatic temperature control), the bottom line ended at $22,350 with $700 destination charge. Other than a smoker's package, these are the turbo's primary option packages. While satellite radio requires a package option, compact disc players and MP3 connections come standard.
The lowest-priced 2013 model-year Fiat 500 with naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual checks in at $16,900. Abarth turbo starts at $22,800. Those plugging into an 'e' electric addition start the bidding at $32,600.
Plenty of head and decent leg room abounds in front. Black/gray cloth sport-styled and supportive bucket seats travel along a manual sliding track. Both seats and seat backs slide forward, once a top seatback cup-like handle gets called into action. Premium leather seats are optional. Turbo front buckets comes standard with silver accent stitching (also found on the steering wheel and a fold-down driver's arm rest). Adult humans will find the two-seat rear crunchy, so adult K9's may be the best fit. Consider Fiat a two seater with benefits. With 50/50 split rear folded, cargo options improve. Extra-large side doors swing open for graceful and easy entries into the front. Static side rear windows showcase the outdoors, but don't power or roll down (sorry Fido).
The five-speed manual includes a hill-holder clutch preventing a backward slide four a couple of moments once the foot leaves the brake pedal for the accelerator. The coupe-like design sports a notable blind spot on the driver's left, but an oval-shaped left-side mirror helps ease anxiety. It includes a second, concaved vertical glass sliver allowing a near-in side view. Nice idea other manufacturers could easily incorporate.
The manually-adjustable steering column tilts, but no telescoping feature may leave very tall or vertically-challenged drivers desiring more. One redeeming quality found in 500s and many Chrysler products are finger-tip audio controls on the backside of the three-spoke steering wheel.
A can't miss, single gauge instrument panel offers a change from the masses, backed up by orange backlighting day and night. A speedometer adorns the outer rim with tachometer tucked a ring below. The center digital bull's eye features multiple factoids including time and odometer clockings. The left outer half consists of a bar-type fuel gauge while the right side opts for a temperature bar gauge. Protecting all is half-shell shade arch, the one protruding element on an otherwise flat-style top side. The dark dashboard with grey mid-level insert would benefit from softer touch materials. No backup camera feed are currently available while the stereo display window includes a narrow rectangular design flanked by circular push-plates monitoring volume control and station pre-sets.
Ventilation and air conditioning controls also include an assortment of push-buttons and plates. Power window controls rest below, adjacent to the elevated manual shift control. Below are dual, side-by-side beverage holders. Auxiliary and USB ports are found in the single-level glove box while a 12-volt outlet resides adjacent to front beverage holders.
In the Lilliputian world of micro cars, subcompacts suddenly qualify as a 'larger option.' Several worthy subcompacts, including the newly redesigned 2014 Nissan Versa ($13,990 starting price for five-door 'Note' hatchback), offer better fuel efficiency, lower base starting price and greater cargo space, but lack 500's visual 'wow' factor.
Standard electric, variable-speed power steering provides a light, effortless wheel movements. Sport-tuned suspension and short wheel base (distance between front and rear axle) provides roadway surface feedback, not a luxury glide.
Both the naturally-aspirated and turbo engines accept regular, 87-octane unleaded although to enjoy peak engine performance, mid-grade 91 octane is recommended for the comparatively small 10.5-gallon tank.
At a Glance
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
Overall length: 144.4 inches
Overall height: 59.8 inches
Overall width: 64.1 inches
Engine: 1.4-liter four cylinder turbo
Price as tested: $22,350
Fuel economy: 28 mpg city, 34 mpg highway
Powertrain warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
Curb weight: 2,477 pounds
Assembly: Toluca, Mexico