2017 Fiat 500

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The market for really small cars like the Fiat 500 has never been really big in this country – land of (usually) inexpensive gas and super-sized SUVs.

And BMW’s Mini got there first.

No one else offered anything as cute – and as small – as the Cooper hatchback. It had the market to itself, pretty much.

Then along came Fiat and the 500. Just as cute – arguably – and even smaller – inarguable.

But it didn’t sell as well.

At first.

Probably because Fiat itself was new just five years ago. Big in Europe – nonexistent here. Well, since the late ‘70s, at least. Fiat left the U.S. market when the U.S. car market was at one of its lowest ebbs, in terms of quality control and many other things. All cars were not-soo-great back then, Fiat’s included.

But Fiat didn’t have the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s to rehab its image with American car buyers, so when the company finally did return to America in 2012, Americans were leery.

But it’s not 1979 – and after five years on the market, Americans are warming up to Fiat. Or at least, to the 500 – which is now outselling the Mini Cooper hatchback by about 200 cars a month, nationally. Yes, really.

See here if you dinna believe me. 

There are sound reasons for this – and you might be interested in knowing what they are if you’re considering either of these two micro cars.    

WHAT IT IS

Like the Mini Cooper hatchback coupe, the  Fiat 500 is a modernized reincarnation of an iconic ‘60s-era micro-car.

Only more so.

It is much smaller than the already very mini Mini Cooper hatchback. And yet, it manages to have a roomier backseat – and more room for stuff behind its back seat – than the extremely mini Mini.

It also has a much lower price tag: $14,995 for the base Pop trim with manual transmission vs. $21,600 for the least expensive version of the Mini Cooper hatchback, which stickers for $21,600 to start and tops out at $31,800 for the high-performance John Cooper Works (JCW) iteration.

Over at Fiat, you can get the 500 Abarth – which like the JCW Mini has a punchy turbocharged engine and an array of suspension/brake/trim upgrades – for $19,995.

Less than Mini wants for the base trim version of its micro-car.

And now you know why the Fiat is catching up to the Mini when it comes to sales.

WHAT’S NEW

All trims – including the base Pop trim – now come standard with an upgraded, six-speaker Alpine audio system at no additional charge.

Unfortunately, the higher-powered turbo engine that was previously available as an optional upgrade in all trims is now exclsuively available in the high-performance Abarth trim.

WHAT’S GOOD

Cute, fun – and inexpensive. Some other cars are two of those things; only one is all three.

Fits places SUVs – and most cars – don’t.

You’ll be surprised how much fits inside.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Gas mileage is good – but less than you’d expect given how small (and small-engined) this car is.

If you want the additional performance dollop that the turbo engine offers, you have to buy the Abarth – which isn’t expensive but is loud. It has a straight pipe exhaust that will make neighbors think you bought a Harley chopper. The previously available non-Abarth turbo got you the more powerful engine but not the Hell’s Angels exhaust.   

UNDER THE HOOD

All 500s – except the high-performance Abarth – come standard with Fiat’s 1.4 liter “MultiAir” four cylinder engine, paired up with either a five-speed manual transmission (standard) or a six-speed automatic (optional).

The engine isn’t a powerhouse – 101 hp and 98 ft.-lbs. of torque – but the 500 isn’t heavy. It only weighs about 2,434 pounds – which for perspective is about 300 pounds lighter than a current compact-sized car like the Honda Civic (2,739 lbs.). The 500 is also about 200 pounds lighter than the Mini two-door hatchback (2,608 lbs.).

It’s still not as quick as the Mini – which gets to 60 in about 7.4 seconds vs. mid-high nines for the Fiat – but it’s not slow, either. And if you feel the need for more speed, go for the Abarth – which is powered by a turbocharged version of the 1.4 liter engine that makes 160 hp and 170 ft.-lbs. of torque at just 2,500 RPM.

The Abarth 500 gets to 60 in just over 7 seconds – more than two seconds quicker than the standard model and quicker than the still-costs-more-Mini.

The Mini S (and JCW Mini) are quicker still, but their asking prices ($25,200 for the S; $31,800 for the JCW) effectively put them in another class – and into competition with more expensive sport hatches like the VW Golf GTI.

One category where the Fiat comes up short vs. the Mini is MPGs.

The base model with the non-turbo 1.4 liter engine rates 27 city, 33 highway – vs. 28 city, 38 highway for the base Mini with its standard 1.5 liter (and turbocharged) three cylinder engine. Given that the Mini is bigger and heavier – and has a stronger engine (134 hp and 162 ft.-lbs. of torque) you’d think its mileage would be lower rather than higher.

And given how small and light the 500 is, it’s surprising it doesn’t rate 40 – or higher – on the highway. Several much larger and heavier cars (like the Mazda3, for example) do. The 500’s less-than-exceptional gas mileage may be due to its less-than-aerodynamically excellent profile. It stands several inches taller than the Mini – 59.8 inches vs. 55.7 inches. Which makes it harder to evade wind resistance, especially on the highway.

Note that the 500’s city mileage is about the same as the Mini’s. 

But, the Mini costs more up front – and may well cost you more down the road, too. Its engines are all turbocharged and intercooled – including the base 1.5 liter engine. More parts, more stress – more things that could go wrong.

All 500s except the Abarth don’t have turbos. So, no chance you’ll be spending a couple thousand bucks seven or eight years from now for a new turbo.

And the $6,605 you saved up front – the price difference between the base trim 500 Pop ($14,995) and the base trim Mini ($21,600) more than makes up for the Mini’s 5 MPG fuel economy advantage on the highway. That sum buys about 2,600 gallons of gas at today’s – roughly – $2.50 per gallon.

And 2,600 gallons of gas will take you – roughly – 80,000 miles. Which is the mileage the Mini would have to spot the Fiat before its slight fuel efficiency advantage would begin saving its owner any money.

ON THE ROAD

There is a wise old saying that it is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

Not that the 500 is slow. A Prius C hybrid is slow (pushing 12 seconds to get to 60). But relative to the current par – which is about 8 seconds to 60 for most compact economy cars – the 500 is a bit under. If the other cars around it are driven to the full extent of their capabilities.

Most aren’t.

Which gives the 500 the advantage – because of its tiny footprint – and its disarmingly cute persona. Other drivers are either too distracted to notice you’re about to bust a move or they don’t expect you to. And – just like that – you’re past them or through them or around them.

This is a car that can exploit almost any hole in traffic that would oblige a motorcycle. And that goes curbside, too. The 500 is only 139.6 inches long. To give you some sense of that, a Honda Civic coupe is 176.9 inches long overall – a difference in length of 37.3 inches or more than three feet. Imagine what that means in terms of slotting into a parking spot – or threading the needle out on the road.

Go with the manual, though.

Because with it, you can make full use of what you’ve got work with. Push the button on the dash for Sport mode – this dials up the sharpest throttle response – and get ready for the light to go green. Bring up the revs, feather the clutch and then hammer the thing. You’ll be surprised how quickly traffic fades in the rearview – their superior horsepower numbers notwithstanding. They are like bodybuilders who flex and pose – and don’t do much with those muscles.

The automatic version doesn’t lose any of its  urban mobility advantage, but it is a bit mopey getting going. Small engines without much torque (98 ft.-lbs., remember – and not until 4,000 RPM) paired up with automatics suffer from acceleration ED. This can be cured by the little blue pill of turbocharging – which (in the Abarth) almost doubles the torque (to  170 ft.-lbs. ) and brings the torque peak down to just 2,500 RPMs.

This version of the 500 works just fine with the automatic.

However, it’s harder to run under the radar because of the pipes on this thing. Which are like the pipes on a ’69 Z28 Camaro or a Harley Chopper – both of which have pipes, all right – and no mufflers. This is good for performance and – when you’re in the mood – good for your mood. But sometimes, discretion is wanted. First thing in the morning, for instance. Or when you are trying to get the Drop on that Camry in the lane next to you. The Abarth’s sound cannons make that as tough as Bruce passing for a chick.

Last year, you could get the Abarth’s turbo engine in the less aurally obstreperous non-Abarth 500. It was quick – and quiet – and it worked really well with the optional automatic, too.

Apparently, not enough people bought it this way, though – which is why Fiat decided to drop it.

Oddly – because it’s so much smaller (and shorter overall) than the Mini – the 500 has a wider turning circle: about 37 feet vs. 35.4 for the Mini hatchback. However, this ends up being a wash in real-world driving (like the mileage disparity) because the 500 is so much smaller. There is about a foot less car to deal with (139.6 inches vs. 151.9 for the Mini) and that makes the Fiat feel more lithe in tight situations, such as shoe-horning into a curbside spot that would otherwise be for motorcycles-only.

Particularly helpful is that there is almost no car ahead of the front windshield. Even compared with the Mini – which also doesn’t have much of a schnozz relative to most other cars – the 500’s view forward is exceptional and that makes negotiating even the tightest spots in this thing golf-cart easy.

AT THE CURB

Like the Mini – and unlike so many other new cars – the 500 is a happy little car. It makes people smile. Even more so when they find out how affordable it is.

But they really warm up when you show them how roomy it is.  In particular, the back seats – which have almost 32 inches of legroom – and to put that in perspective, a new Camaro has about 26 inches – and the Camaro is twice as large (just about) as the 500.

A full-sized adult can sit in the 500’s back seat – with the driver and front passenger seats not scrunched far forward to accommodate them. It’s not super comfortable in the 500’s back seats, but the point is they are viable for adults. The Camaro’s (and the Ford Mustang’s) are not. In those cars, the backs of the front seats literally touch the seat cushions of the rear seats, unless the front seats are scrunched forward such that a normal sized adult can’t drive the car.

Also of interest, the 500 has more backseat room than the larger overall Mini – which has 30.8 inches. And the 500 has more cargo space behind the back seats: 9.5 cubic feet vs. 8.7 for the Mini. The Mini has a bit more overall cargo space – with the second row down, you have 34 cubic feet vs. 30.2 for the Fiat with its second row down – but the overall fact remains:

The Fiat is more space-efficient than the Mini.

Word is getting out about this.

Also about what a deal this thing is. The base Pop trim comes with all power options, including cruise control, a configurable LCD/digital instrument cluster, a 5-inch secondary touchscreen and a very good six speaker Alpine sound system. That’s for just under $15k – sticker.

The Lounge adds heated seats, a panorama sunroof, climate control AC and numerous trim upgrades – for just over $18k.

That’s still thousands away from the base price of the least expensive Mini.

Go for the top-of-the-line Abarth – with the turbo engine, a bevy of suspension and brake enhancements (including powder-coated calipers), upgrade wheel/tire package, leather trim, the optional Beats premium audio rig with trunk-mounted subwoofer, nav – and a peel-it-back back targa top – and you might may about the same as you would  . . . for a base trim Mini hatchback.

Also: The 500 – which dates back to 2012 – lacks some of the crap that is making most new cars overteched, over-expensive and aggravating. It has a physical ignition key, for instance. This will last forever – and if not, it’s cheap to get a new one. That goes for the lock cylinder, too. As opposed to the not-cheap electronic key fob and push-button ignition most 2017 cars have.

No automatic stop/start. No eight (or nine or ten) speed transmission. No lane departure annoyance.

As the guy in Falling Down said, think about it.

THE REST

Fiat’s biggest issue isn’t the car – it’s PR. People’s view of Fiat – the company – is still colored by memories of the ’70s. The goodness – and incredible value of the car – is pushing through all that, but there is still a lot of work to be done getting the word out.

Fiat could steal a page out of Hyundai’s playbook to reassure buyers by offering a bulletproof warranty, which amounts to the same thing as a bulletproof car. Hyundai swayed lots of doubters with its ten-year/100,000 mile drivetrain warranty.

Fiat should give thought to offering the same.

It’d put worries about the ’70s to rest.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Sometimes, the best things going are hidden right before your eyes.

. . .

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Oh Chip, your Dad is to be commended for His honesty, its coming around to the time when I realize after subsequent improvements in my driving skills after being allowed to lay down the chainsaw , shovel and wacker and crawl out the ditch and stop slipping down the steep slope and finally getting a seat in a truck, my skills are deteriorating, in a short while when SS gets enough to scrape by on, going to shed that ever-increasing veil of sorrows called truck driving and watch the poor Guys who are wage slaves battle and brave the elements( one time when I was in a depression( helped by my sub $5 an hour wages) the boss came by and told Me to hide the “Job-com” under the raincoat so it wouldn’t get wet as I was standing there in the sub-freezing rain shivering as the water ran down the back of my neck) never again, life has to be more than being miserable and you know what if something as sane as a universal wage happened ,I would not begrudge the beneficiaries a bit.Its really an interesting concept and the sad thing is it would cost just a fraction of our “offense budget ” as one cat said “Poverty is not a lack of character, its a lack of money”.
    Thanks to My generous Governor I actually got to vote in this election.I hope common sense will prevail and at least the Medical problem in the USA will get solved, it cost over $60K for my Uncle to die a miserable sub two-day death , heck of an ending for an old War Veteran .

  2. Is it possible to get the performance features (stiffer suspension, higher performing exhaust, etc) of the Abarth without getting the turbo?

    • Hi Confederate,

      The suspension parts could all be purchased over the counter; you wouldn’t want the exhaust, though – and not only because it’s loud. It was designed for the turbo and if you installed it behind the standard engine, the loss of backpressure would likely cause a drop in performance.

  3. “but the 500 isn’t heavy. It only weighs about 2,434 pounds – which for perspective is about 300 pounds lighter than a current compact-sized car like the Honda Civic”

    For a different perspective on how Uncle has bulked up even micro cars, I looked up the curb weight of V6 Mustang from 1965: “Shipping weight, approximately 2,570 lb (1,166 kg) with the straight six-cylinder engine, was also similar to the Falcon.”

    Or this: “Volkswagen Beetle – Curb weight 1,760–1,850 lb”

  4. If I drove primarily in a congested, crowded mega-urban environment, this thing would be on my short list (pardon the pun.)

    It “is” cute. The price is so much lower than a Mini that it’s really a more practical type of investment.

    Guess it even could be fun too, if you actually buy into that “driving fast while going slow” bit. 😉

    It comes close to being the ultimate “disposable car.” If it turns out to be fairly reliable and durable….so much the better. But if it turns out to be the same piece of crap that Fiats traditionally have been….so what? It’s not like you pissed away all that much money.

    • Hi Mike,

      It would work for me. In fact, if I were in the market and didn’t need a truck this car would be on my list. It reminds me a lot of my old VW Beetle, in terms of the friendly fun of the thing. It’s just an enjoyable little car. I like the unpretentiousness of it as well as the low cost.

  5. We have a 2 Fiat family, my 2012 Abarth (very modded) and my wife’s 2015 1957 edition Cabrio (in that same blue pastel) & we both love them! Parts are relatively easy to get from local FCA dealer and there is lots of after market stuff as well in case you want to make it “your Own’.

    There are a lot of them in this area and are now almost as common as Mini’s and they are great in Silicon Valley traffic & parking.

  6. It’s refreshing to see a brand offer feminine color schemes. I never really understood why the industry walked away from it to begin with, especially considering women always had a say in picking out the cars they drove.

    Ford was really onto something when they positioned Mercury as a car brand for women. It was actually working, believe it or not.

    • Hi Handler,

      I agree – the Cod Piece/hyper-macho thing has run its course. I would not pick this color for myself, but I agree: It’s nice they offer it.

  7. There’s lot of 500’s running around in Austin for all the reasons you mention – they’re affordable to people saddled with college loans, fun to drive, small and easy to park.

    Compared with the Japanese & Koreans, they’re still not reliability champs, so having a local dealer will be important. But if you’ve got the money, get an Abarth as a commuter car. It’ll turn the workplace frown into a smile on your drive home.

    • Hi Graves,

      This car makes sense to me – one of the few new cars that does. It’s relatively inexpensive – about the cost of a current touring motorcycle – fun to drive, not over-teched.

      Keep in mind the current (2017) model dates back to 2012 and so it hasn’t yet been ruined by DI, ten speeds, auto stop and the rest of that stuff.

      • To be honest, when the folks said they were getting one, I was going to try and talk them out of it. The one they got is a sharp looking car, dark grey, with a reddish maroon top, with a black interior (so glad they didn’t get the white on the inside). It actually has some character, which is so rare in a new car. They actually like that the sides don’t roll down like a regular convertible. And the price couldn’t be beat. Back in 2015 it was selling poorly, so the dealer was raring to deal (too bad that dealer has sucked majorly since).

        Its been a fine purchase for them. To be honest, the small size is good for my dad, as his driving skills are not getting better (he is 75). Their other vehicle is a Ford Freestar minivan, and he bumps things with it. It’s way bigger then he thinks it is.

        So far he hasn’t bumped anything with the 500. Hoping to get them to get something smaller to replace the not so minivan, but he wants another one (he is in major denial about his driving unfortunately).

        • Its a shame, there comes a time, I remember my Wifes Grandfather ( she said anyway) people were running into His old big LTD.

          • Ok, now you’ve called my hand. I’m part of a 4 driver trucking company right now. At nearly 68 I’m the 3rd oldest driver. I don’t bitch. No matter what the day has been, I don’t bitch.

            Last Thursday we had been busting ass for 2 hours in the dark beginning at 6 am, airing tires, running out lease roads that are nothing but trails across open range with tiny cattleguards, coming around hard curves across big ass tank dams, dodging a shitload of deer and cattle, loading the in the pitch black(heavily overcast) and having to use locked differentials just to get up steep, rough grades…..and I was following an 84 year old driver and leading an 80 year old driver. Both these guys had been driving truck forever. The 80 year old had worked for nearly every company around and had run out of SS benefits.

            Near the end of the day the a-holes running the show and having their asses to the wall for starting too late by a couple days, talked the quarry owner into staying late and we ended up running loads in the dark in pastures we were building roads on. This is the time of day when you can’t see shit and especially not into an overgrown pasture with just a bladed patch to follow. We turned around in pasture barely visible with diff’s locked and gave em hell to not get stuck(in the dark, no big equipment operators in sight).

            Say again how old some driver is. I’d follow these guys to hell and back….and have in the last two weeks. Going out to the lease I tailed everyone because I felt I should be there if something went wrong. The youngest driver led us out that morning(58)and turned off onto a wrong road. The 80 year old then led us and turn off onto another wrong road(this shit ain’t easy). Then the 84 year old got in the lead and I felt like I was following the best old tracking dog around. He got us there, no wrong turns, no hiccups or anything else. This is such a convoluted deal you can’t even see the lights of the lead truck 1/4 mile away. The 84 year old got loaded in pitch black(we all did), tore off and we all followed him out. Later, in the light of day(it’s easier that way)the boss asked me how we left the yard and got to the site in such a haphazard order. I told him. He just looked bewildered. Since that time I’ve been running front door for those old geezers but not once have I ever felt I was doing something they couldn’t do….and do better. Just felt it was time for me to step up and take the hard lead.

            • I know not every older person loses their ability to drive. In the case of my dad, a lifetime of bad driving habits, bad hearing, not paying attention and bad judgment is catching up with him. Replacing several bumpers, mirrors etc isn’t making him think differently about driving yet. He needs to quit driving that big van.

              • I have had the pleasure of being with some older excellent drivers, some of the old Guys were just in the way, unfortunate but true.
                For some reason some of these Guys get done with semi’s and think a backdump is the ticket, one of the quarry drivers, took a load probably 25 miles away on twisting bad roads (steep too)(powerful truck) backed up to the pile didn’t trip the tailgate, dumped half a load across the closed tailgate and took the rest back to the Quarry with Him, the scale Lady made Him take the rest of the load back( seems He didn’t actually want to ) another Old Navy Vet( another customer never wanted Him back) parked the truck a ways down over the bank and left without saying anything to anyone(lost His job) another old Tomcat was noted for ( never lubed the truck He was driving either) ruining a new set of tires by destroying the sidewalls, the list goes on and some of these old Guys were mean as Heck.Part of the problem was the Boss would hire anyone He could hire cheap and had the vaunted “CDL” license( gets harder to pass that physical every year) comes a time
                On the other hand, some of these older seasoned Guys were of a High caliber and dang gone it, the “CDL” vetting process denied us their service. I was told a couple of school teachers wrote the CDL tests up and I am prone to believe it. It won’t be much longer till I let the “Young Lions and Squirrels ” have the old colon smasher trucks. The only “Paccar “I was around was a nice KW Tractor that the Bosses mostly drove, we got stuck with the 30-year-old MACKS and can anyone tell me why the “Granites ” are an improvement ?( more power yes, but gutless on the low end )

                • Hi Kevin!

                  I recommend that anyone who hasn’t actually driven one of these things give it a whirl. They are damned fun!

                  That they are also affordable – and not encrusted with saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety and Too Much technology – is icing on the cake!

                  • Eric, I bought a 07 Honda Fit a couple of months ago and the mileage seems to run from 35-44 mpg under the proper circumstances and the 500 Abarth would have probably been on my list if I hadn’t came across this little scooter ( I would probably fit the 500 with a reverse flow muffler and at least knock the edge off of the racket )

              • One of the things I’m proudest of my dad having done is sell his car when he realized he was driving poorly. Mom followed him to the car lot to give him a ride home afterwards, and she was shocked to see how much he was wandering in his lane, and how he almost hit the curbs on his turns. (He had previously taken out a mirror on the garage door).

                It all catches up with us.

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