The Bad: Slow acceleration, numb steering.
The Ugly: The ridiculous speedometer/tachometer/odometer combination.
The Fiat 500 is indeed a car to fall in love with even when Jennifer Lopez isn’t dancing around it. When the 500 is standing still there are so many things to like. The seats are comfortable, visibility all around is excellent, interior and exterior color selections are great and the interior is surprisingly spacious for such a small car. Like the Mini Cooper the Fiat 500 is very customizable. Future owners will have a lot of fun designing their own personalized 500.
For me, the problems started after I turned the key. The 500 seems severely underpowered. When I test drove it the tiny engine sounded like it was about to explode just bringing the car up to highway speeds under normal throttle. I shudder to think what would happen if I needed to accelerate quickly. To be fair, the 500 automatic transmission offers a “Sport” mode that changes the transmission’s shift points which helps a surprising amount. Sport mode doesn’t make the engine any quieter but it makes the car a lot more fun to drive because you don’t have to mash the accelerator to floor to get moving.
The steering effort is very light and provides negligible feed back. The folks at Fiat might consider borrowing a Mini or a Volkswagen and find out what good steering is all about. For driving at slow speeds the light touch is nice, especially if you’re parallel parking, but the rest of the time it seemed numb and unresponsive.
In addition to the steering, I wasn’t to happy with the speedometer/tachometer/odometer combination. I thought the display was absurdly busy. Fiat simply tried too hard to cram too much information into too small a space.
Also, for what’s advertised as an inexpensive car, it is amazing how fast the Fiat 500 becomes an expensive car (if only it accelerated as fast). The Pop, starting at $15,500, is a bare bones people mover, not much fun to look and even less to drive. The Sport starts at $17,500 and it, or the Lounge starting at $19,500, are probably the models most people will buy. The Sport adds alloy wheels to the Pop as well as sport-tuned suspension and slightly tighter steering. The Lounge starts where the Pop leaves off and adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a Bose audio system as standard. Both the Pop and the Lounge offer convertible versions which add $4,000 to their respective base prices. Last of all is the Abarth, a sporty, mean-looking 500 that is presumably intended to compete with the Volkswagen GTI (good luck with that Fiat).
The Sport and the Lounge are the most customizable versions of the 500, and offers lots of options, which allow the buyer to really make the car their own. If you can afford it, I recommend the Bose audio system. It sounds great and you can use it to drown out the noisy engine.
The good news for the 500, assuming most of your driving is in town, is its not a bad little car. It gets good gas mileage (27 city, 34 highway, 30 combined), is reasonably quiet (as long as you aren’t accelerating). And, as my wife puts it “it is just cute as a bug”. I have definite feeling the 500 will be a “chic” car. I haven’t seen the demographics on the average 500 buyer, but I would be willing to bet it’s about 75% female.
So the 500 is not a bad car by any means, it has some flaws and is a little expensive for what you get yet it can still be a lot of fun. I am a little concerned about its reliability because it is new to the US and Fiat’s were not known for their reliability their last go-round (in fairness a lot of manufactures were making pretty awful cars during that period). The only other car I can think of that directly competes with the 500 in terms of size, price and customizability (is that a word?) are the various Minis. So test drive a Fiat 500, check out the warranty and reliability reports, and if you still love it, buy it. Happy motoring.