It's an acquired taste, for those who thrive upon light Italian.
Auto manufacturer Fiat and its diminutive 500 returned to the states in the 2012 model year after a decades-long hiatus. The 500's 'retro' design harkens back to the late 1950's when the Italian automaker introduced the original, affordably-priced, 500
A cute, petite, three-door runabout appealing to first-time car buyers prioritizing affordability and optimal fuel economy, the front-wheel-drive 500 stands out from the boxy crowd. For inspiration, the 500 silhouette channels its inner baseball cap with a short gently curved hood, domed middle and very diminutive back end. At 139.6 inches in length, it's slightly below traditional subcompact; Fiat coins it a 'mini compact.'
For those who enjoy outdoor living, a power-operated soft-canvas top cabrio (500c) awaits. All three 500 trims (Pop, Lounge, Abarth) are available with sliding soft tops for a relatively reasonable outlay, well worth the $1,495 stipend and adding significantly to the quirky vehicle's 'fun factor.'
Since 2011, Fiat's added several new offshoots including the all-wheel-drive 500x crossover, an extended-length five-passenger 500L and an all-electric plug-in 500e available in select coastal states (but nowhere near the flatlands of Chicago). Mechanically, the 2017 500 platform underpinnings haven't changed in the past half-decade.
For the 2017 model year, Fiat streamlines trim levels for the bubble-ish 500. Gone is the '1957' edition (a nod to the vehicle's debut year). Also, all three trims now offer optional six-speed automatic transmissions ($995), in-dash navigation and sunroofs ($795).
Of bigger note, starting pricing gets slashed significantly from previous years, placing 500 in closer approximation to diminutive transports including the Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta and three-cylinder Mitsubishi Mirage. The lowest-priced 500, a 2017 'Pop' hard-top with five-speed manual checks in at $14,995.
The sole engine in Pop and Lounge trims; an inline 1.4-liter four-cylinder churning out a rather (yawn) uninspiring 101 horsepower. Abarth trims offer a turbocharged 1.4 engine with increased horsepower.
Expect louder-than-average noise levels inside the bubble when traveling highways. Tire, wind, engine and general traffic noises make their way into the cabin, not a deal breaker for the intended target audience.
Our 2017 Pop soft-top tester with an easy-shifting, high-mounted five-speed manual transmission started at $16,490, one of the most affordable convertibles sold in America. Options included a $495 popular equipment (auto-dimming rearview mirror with microphone), $995 cabrio sport package (fog
lamps, body-colored facias), $695 GPS in-dash navigation with one-year satellite radio subscription and $695 stereo upgrade bringing the bottom line to $20,365 with $995 destination charge.
With the black canvas top up and protecting riders from the elements, the Pop Cabrio provides better road perception than recently-tested soft-top roadsters thanks in part to stationary row-two side windows. The driver's side mirror also features a low-tech but highly effective blind-spot vertical concave helping zero in on left-side traffic.
Round headlight housing creates a stylishly different twist from many rivals, opting for narrow, wrap-around designs, flanking the curved hood, which disappears from a driver's perception when behind the wheel. The overhang behind rear wheels is close to non-existent, with vertical rectangular tail light housing residing over the rear wheels, flanking the stubby hatch door.
The power sliding soft top design falls between a long, extended panoramic sun roof and conventionally operating soft top. The B and C pillars remain structurally intact during openings and closings, with the roof folding in bellow-like fashion along topside rails. A glass rear window with heating elements folds down at the end of the trek. Two well-market square push-buttons near the rear-view mirror operate the upper deck. The sliding process takes about 8.4 seconds according to an unofficial Smartphone stopwatch.
The gently sloping rectangular 'luggage compartment' door, with topside hinging just below the back window, flips open to 5.4 cubic feet of cargo space with back seats prone, enough room for a small roller bag and foldable gym bag. The 50/50 split back seatbacks fold down onto cushions, but not completely flat. Chrome, strap-like door handles adorn both sizeable side doors, which swing out widely for easy entry into the front buckets.
The just-as-diminutive 10.5-gallon fuel tank recommends not-so-basic 91-octane premium fuel for optimal performance. Regular 87 octane is acceptable, but fuel mileage may dip.
Fiat markets 500 as a four-seater, with two bucket-like cushions in back. That could be a stretch depending upon who intends taking up residence. Full-size adults and long-inseamed teens feel the full effect of minimal leg room, depending upon negotiations with front seat occupants and positioning of their buckets. Manually sliding front cushions glide forward simultaneously when backrests manually tilt forward. Front seat headroom remains plentiful. Even in back, headroom for those six-feet two inches and shorter is good. Small static rear side windows stay in place.
The steering column manually tilts up and down, but no telescoping (in and out) opportunity exists. A creative, easily- interpretable dashboard and instrument panel awaits drivers. The IP is a large, single-circle, Cyclops eye with an upside brow and includes a large, white-colored digital speedometer readout. It's flanked by a curved, interior bar-like fuel gauge to the right, and curved heat-gauge left side. Outser-edged curved info includes a left-side tachometer and right-side instant fuel gauge.
Power front windows operate from lower dashboard tabs flanking the transmission shifter, not the doors. Ventilation functions include a myriad of push buttons. Centering the central upper dash is a
relatively small, five-inch multi-function touch screen flanked in lower corners by convenient primary-control twist dials monitoring volume and station selection.
As with many Fiat/Chrysler automobiles, secondary audio functions operate via fingertips doing the walking behind the three-spoke steering wheel. Rectangular toggle buttons control station pre-set selection and scrolling on the left side, and volume raising/lowering on the right. It's one of the best designs found from any manufacturer.
Both front buckets include narrow fold-up/fold-down arm rests. Below, a hand-operated pull-arm parking brake. Our black dashboard included a center insert with coloring mimicking the outside hue.
While some may find labeling 500c a 'family' vehicle a hard sell, this aging scribe and rag-tag family cluster challenged it to a weekend getaway. An all-too-loyal near-deaf Schnauzer, and even loyal-er significant other headed to the Wisconsin Dells to begin closing down the seasonal abode.
Not quite making the cut, the oversized Rodney Dangerfield like Caddy Shack-ish golf bag (minus the handy beer tap). However, select irons and woods fit snugly in the trunk, extending into the second row with one seatback folded. Canine kibble, some human sustenance and two overnight bags filled the remaining 5.9 cubic feet. The 500c easily passed the getaway odyssey test, with the convertible top a hit with neighbors.
The 500's built in Toluca, Mexico at the same facility churning out FCA's (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) 2017 Jeep Compass compact crossover. 2017 Fiat 500
Price as tested: $20,365
Engine: 1.4-liter inline four
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
Overall Length: 139.6 inches
Overall Height: 59.8 inches
Overall Width: 64.1 inches
Fuel economy: 31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway.
Curb weight: 2,366 pounds
Powertrain warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
Assembly: Toluca, Mexico