Reader Question: Avoid the 500?

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Heres’ the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Sean asks: I was watching a YouTube video made by a guy denouncing the Fiat 500 for being difficult to work on. He had to remove/install an alternator at about 80,000 miles on a 2012 model and made it sound ass though the car was shoddy for that reason, too. I have been thinking about buying one of these so the video worried me. I wanted to get your thoughts on both the car and the guy’s claims about repairability. Thanks!

My reply: The 500 is a very small/FWD car and its drivetrain is packed in there pretty tightly. But this is true of all FWD cars – the worst to work on being, in my experience, ones with V6 engines, because half the engine is often extremely difficult to get at with the engine still in the car. That’s because in most FWD cars, the engine is mounted sideways (transversely) rather than front-to-back. It’s also often shoved back against the firewall.

But even RWD-based vehicles can be a pain to wrench on if the engine is too big for the space – or rather, doesn’t leave much to spare. For example, my Nissan Frontier (2002) was available with a V6 but it doesn’t leave much room for tools or fingers. One reason I have the four in mine!

Back to the Fiat. . .

Because its engine is mounted sideways, engine driven accessories like the alternator that would be at the front of the car in a RWD car are off to the side – the passenger side, in the case of the 500.

Either way, manufacturers will sometimes try to make it easier to get at accessories that will need to be replaced at some point – like the alternator – by placing it up high on the engine or mounting it such that access can be gained through a wheelwell, etc. Sometimes, it’s necessary to remove splash guards and maybe even one or both engine mounts and raise the engine up a bit, etc.

It’s certainly more of a hassle – a lot more hassle – than changing an alternator on an old RWD American car (often, two bolts, one wrench and 15 minutes of time). But – in the case of the 500 – no more and possibly less hassle than doing the same job on say a VW New Beetle or BMW Mini.

I think the car has an undeserved bad reputation. Needing a new alternator after 80k and eight years isn’t outrageous – if that’s all the car needed in the way of other-than-usual maintenance. I have a friend who bought one new; she loves it/hasn’t had any issues with hers other than some of the interior trim fake chrome peeling – a small thing given the small price of these things.

I would, however, avoid the turbo model just because turbos add parts (always) and possible heavy costs. I’d look for one with the standard engine and manual transmission. They aren’t speedy but they’re plenty fast enough to outrun most drivers.

They are also a lot more practical than they look. Viable back seats and the tall roof makes the cargo space it has more usable than in some larger small cars!

. . .

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  1. I’ve noticed over the years trucking how many more vehicles burn. It used to be something you rarely saw.

    But one reason I think figures into it is the size of the engine compartment. Back in the day with big V8’s they put off plenty heat but didn’t melt everything under the hood and had virtually no plastic under there.

    With the same thermostat on an engine, you’d notice a much lower temp when a big V8 was put into a much smaller engine compartment.

    There were lots of holes in the radiator support that let cooler air in opposed to the ones now with the only air underhood coming through the coolers. I recall when those cars with some room in front of the coolers was a great place to store your cooler on cold weather, not even needing ice and sometimes having to remove it and put it in the truck to thaw frozen drinks out.

  2. My folks have a 2015 500 and its been a good car. The flimsy cheap armrest for the driver lasts about 5 seconds, so don’t bother fixing that. They did have problems with the electric door locks, which was fixed under warranty and hasn’t been a problem since.

    The local dealer sucks though.


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