It’s easy to pick on the little guy, and Fiat’s 500 has endured plenty of this during its few years on this side of the Atlantic. Chosen as the mascot for the brand’s return to American soil, the ‘little’ Cinquecento was a brave move coming from a very new relationship between Fiat and the Chrysler group. Following a 27-year hiatus from the United States, the anticipation was high, and there was news of several new Italian flavored models that would soon be joining the lineup. It all sounded really good. Unfortunately, in 2014 we’re still only left with a few versions of that same 500, and a pseudo-500, minivan, they’ve affectionately named, the 500L. No tasty, small displacement sports cars, sporting sedans or even the brand’s much-loved Panda. With the Alfa Romeo US launch continuously being put off, one might wonder if enthusiasts will ever get the chance to enjoy the inexpensive, authentic Italian experience stateside.
It’s not all bad news, though. As it turns out, the car we all like to laugh at can really provide lots of smiles, and thankfully for us, is finally a high-quality object that is about the farthest thing from what was being sold when Fiat left this country with their tail between their legs.
As an automobile, the Fiat 500 has several ‘quirks’ that one will eventually adjust to once driven enough. You can’t take it too seriously, or you won’t have any fun. You do feel like you’re sitting on a bar stool, and the relatively large-diameter steering wheel sits at an angle that resembles a city bus. That said, maybe we’re just a little too adjusted to older cars, but we found the ride quality of our 500 Sport test car was surprisingly compliant. It is a little on the bouncy side, but given its hilariously short, eight-foot wheelbase, it’s certainly tolerable.
Once you’ve taken some abuse for driving such a ‘cute looking’ car and you finally jump inside, most will be pleasantly surprised. Surprised, not only by the welcome amount of space, but there’s more style in the three buttons that grace the painted dash than in my entire closet. There’s a sense of occasion that Fiat mastered with the overall interior design, and while it might not be the most ergonomically friendly, it looks like something you’d find way outside this price range. This being said, interior fit and finish is about what you’d expect from something that starts at around $16,000 and visibility, particularly with the strategically placed B-pillar, is on the weak side for a car that otherwise feels quite airy.
Having extensively driven the turbocharged, 500 Abarth, the normal, 1.4L naturally aspirated four does feel on the anemic side, but never once did we have to worry about keeping up with, or even, passing traffic. The 6-speed, AISIN-sourced automatic transmission in our test car is a surprisingly nice shifting unit that does a fairly good job guessing which gear you’d like next. Make no mistake, the 5-speed manual transmission would clearly be our personal choice to exploit all of its 101 hp.
While the ride quality is definitely acceptable given its size, most will find its handling characteristics a bit amusing. Don’t be fooled by our test car’s “Sport Tuned Suspension”, as hustling a 500, of any variety, will bring out some rather unsettling qualities when the road gets crooked. With a rudimentary twist-beam rear axle, one can only expect so much, but the 500 does not exactly instil confidence in its abilities. Between the numb, electric steering to the teeter-totter sensation one gets when pushing the 500 near its theoretical handling limit, it can make for quite an adventure.
It really becomes clear the Fiat 500’s intentions once you’re threading it through traffic. Around our congested office in Charlotte, NC, the pint-sized 500 provided a lot of entertainment to an otherwise dull commute, and it’s rare you’re met by an onlooker not wearing a smile. This is where the 500 really shines. There’s a sense of identity with the car, and while it’s clearly another example of a retro theme, this car is a well executed design that’s clearly been appreciated by consumers. It only takes one drive around Los Angeles, Miami, or any metropolitan area in Europe to see how much of a design and marketing success the little Fiat has been. Few cars produced now possess so much personality.
2014 Fiat 500 Sport
Base Price: $17,500
Options: Rosso Briliante Paint, $500; Comfort/Convenience Group, $900; Avorio Seats, $250; AISIN 6-speed Automatic Transmission, $1,250; TomTom Navigation, $600, 16″x6.5″ Aluminum Wheels, $400