Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport 5MT

One of the worst-kept secrets in the auto industry is that the Fiat 500 was not going to hit its sales target of 50,000 units for 2011.  Instead, Fiat sold just 19,769 cars in the US in 2011, falling short of its goal by more than 60 percent.  While analysts have blamed the company’s slow rollout, tepid marketing, and lack of Fiat dealers for the car’s flop, I think I actually know the real reason.  People literally laugh at big guys who drive these cars.  Trust me – I’ve experienced this first hand.

When I had the chance to review a Fiat 500 Sport, with larger wheels, a manual transmission, and olive green metallic paint, I figured such moves would move the car more solidly toward masculinity beyond what a white and red 500C convertible afforded last summer.  Instead, I literally had coworkers standing around in the parking lot to watch me enter and exit the car while pointing and laughing.  Literally.

I’m a big guy (six foot four) but not particularly chunky (190 pounds), so watching me ingress/egress with a 500 is not the same as watching pre-weight loss Jorge Garcia get into his character’s second-generation Camaro in a Lost flashback.  I have to duck my head, and I’m not the most graceful person, but apparently it’s still silly to see a tall man get into a tiny car.

My friends’ and coworkers’ reactions amused me.  Yet they may well be an example of the headwinds facing sellers of small cars in this country.  Gasoline is expensive, but still relatively cheap compared to what most of the rest of the developed world pays.  I suspect that at $3.50 per gallon instead of $7.50 per gallon, most Europeans would just as soon have larger, more powerful cars than what most of them drive today.  So what’s the case for the Fiat 500?  Once you look past the cuteness and its easy-to-park nature, what are you left with?  Not much interior room and not much car for the money in a country where most buyers are looking for the most car (i.e. pounds) for their money.

During my week with the 500 Sport, I kept reminding friends and family that in Europe, this would be – or could be – a family car.  And we did manage to fit the entire family into the car for a Saturday of errands.  Of course, many compromises were required.  Rather than perching my driver’s seat near its rear-most position, which allows all but zero rear legroom, I moved it forward as far as I could while still being able to engage the clutch.  After installing car seats in the back (which was a breeze), everyone climbed in, buckled up, and we set off.

The first stop was lunch.  No problem – and of course, the 500 was easy to park at Pizzeria Uno because it’s a dwarf in a parking space built for giants.  The kids left the restaurant with balloons in tow, so we crammed those into the trunk.  I thought they were tied down to something.  They were not.  Remember this.  The second stop was Target; we left the store with two large bags – combined with the balloons, the Fiat’s small cargo area was now maxed out.  We then went to the dry cleaner’s to pick up about a dozen dress shirts, but ran into a problem.  Without me literally forcing the freshly-pressed shirts into the trunk (which kind of defeats the purpose of paying the cleaner to press them), the only way to get the shirts home was for my wife to hold them on her lap.  That did not exactly endear the 500 to her.

Once we got home, I grabbed the bags to carry them into the house.  As I lifted the last bag, the balloon wedged beneath it took off for the clouds.  I knew I was in trouble, and my six year old was really bummed out. Could a larger car with more cargo capacity have saved the balloon?  Who knows, but a larger trunk probably could have done a better job holding my dry cleaning better than my wife did, and kept her happier as well.

So, if you’re keeping score, I have a car that my coworkers make fun of, my wife dislikes because it’s too small to hold a family of four and their luggage, and that my six year old son blames for losing his balloon.  (Actually, I’m sure he blames me for the balloon thing instead of blaming the car.)

That’s not being entirely fair, though.  For many – just not families of four tall people – the Fiat 500 is a perfectly suitable car.  It’s easy to imagine it as the first new car for someone just out of college.  Of course, with the debt load most college graduates are carrying post-matriculation, carrying the note on a $19,000 new car may not be the most prudent financial choice when there are less expensive used (and even new) alternatives.

Pricing and size aside, the Fiat 500 Sport is a fun little car to drive.  An Abarth with the turbo four underhood would be more fun to drive of course, but the small size – especially its narrow width – make you very much aware of your surroundings.  While it’s quite narrow, it’s also quite tall proportionately.  There’s reasonable headroom even for big guys like me, but when you put two car seats side-by-side in the back seat, they are nearly touching one another, which means the boys sitting in those seats are touching one another.

There’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde feel to the 500 Sport’s steering.  When not in Sport mode, it’s overboosted and even feels kind of slow.  It’s fine for highway travel, but pressing the Sport button dramatically changes its power assist so that it almost feels under-boosted.  Still, I prefer to have a little effort behind my steering wheel, so whenever I remembered it, I put the 500 in Sport for my trips in the car.  When you re-start the car, it defaults to Sport mode being off.

Personally, I’m intrigued by manual transmissions with more ratios, such as the 7 speed manual in the new Porsche 911.  Six speeds are nearly a must-have for extracting acceptable off-the-line performance and highway fuel economy, yet the 500’s shift-it-yourself unit has only five forward speeds.  The only person I have ever met who prefers five speeds to six speeds is my wife.  Her reason?  “Too much shifting with a six speed.”  The lack of a super-tall overdrive gear means the 500 drones a bit at highway speeds, and also that I tried to shift beyond 5th gear a handful of times.  That being said, it’s one of the easiest three-pedal cars to drive that I’ve ever sampled, so it might be a good first car for a well-to-do young person.

The 500’s most obvious competitor is the similarly retro-styled MINI Cooper, and like the MINI, the 500 suffers a bit from a function-follows-form ethos in the interior.  While it looks very cool, especially the body color inserts on the dash, there is more of a learning curve than should be necessary to tackle some basic functions.  Would it kill them to put real knobs instead of buttons to tune the radio and adjust its volume?  Our tester came with Sirius satellite radio and had Bluetooth audio capability, and both worked well.  A Bose subwoofer in the trunk helped the car’s sound, but you’re not getting a Bang & Olufsen system in a $19,000 car.  I found the gauge cluster to be particularly difficult to read and use; it’s a single circle with the speedometer as its primary instrument, and the tachometer shares the same real estate, with a small LED fuel gauge and a trip computer nestled in between.  The trip computer was very difficult to use even after a week with the car.

I thought the factory TomTom navigation system was kind of a neat implementation – and probably one that Chevrolet might consider for its navigation-less Camaro.  Rather than devoting precious center stack space to a large screen (which – gasp – would not look period correct in a 500), the $400 TomTom navigation unit is just a handheld unit that comes with a dock.  When you park the car, you undock it from the dash (there’s a spring-loaded door atop the dash that the dock connects to) and put it in your glove box so it’s not visible to potential thieves.  I prefer Garmin software to TomTom, but it was easy to use and you can’t argue with the price relative to the $1,500+ price range of other OEM navigation systems.

Though 100 horsepower engines were more commonplace 20 or 30 years ago during the Malaise Era, they’re somewhat rare these days, with only the smallest and weakest new cars around that century mark.  The thing is, with a car that tips the scales at 2,363 pounds, 101 horsepower feels almost adequate.  It can certainly keep up with traffic, and the relatively low gearing, while it drones on the highway, keeps the small engine near the heart of its powerband – and that reduces the need to shift frequently.

The suspension tuning is somewhat on the firm side – but I’m fine with that, particularly since this is the Sport model and there isn’t much else (like brake upgrades or more horsepower) to differentiate the Sport from the Lounge and Pop aside from suspension tuning and wheel size.  The brakes are small, but so is the car.  The small size, small engine, and light weight give the 500 EPA fuel economy ratings of 30 MPG city and 38 MPG highway.  Though ordinarily I’d say that an extra gear ratio would help those numbers, the ratings for the 500 with a 6 speed automatic are a midsize sedan-like 27/34.  These ratings are in line with the MINI Cooper’s 28/36 (automatic) and 29/37 (manual).  It was easy for me to see 35 MPG on the highway at a steady 65 MPH, and I saw around 31 MPG overall in mixed driving.

Though I harped a bit on price earlier, everything is relative.  The 500 Sport starts at $17,500.  Our tester had the $400 automatic climate control, $200 safety & sound package (satellite radio), and $400 TomTom navigation package.  Tack on a very reasonable $500 destination charge (shipping should be less for a 2,300 pound car!) and you get a $19,000 MSRP.  A comparably-equipped MINI Cooper would be about $4,500 more, though the MINI is a bit larger and has more proven residual values.  Compared to a Hyundai Accent (which has a significantly stronger engine – 138 HP vs. 101) and an extra pair of doors), the Hyundai is about $600 cheaper when comparably equipped.

There’s something charming and fun about driving around the suburbs in the US in an Italian subcompact (forgetting for a moment that it’s assembled in Mexico with a US-made engine).  If you can handle some ribbing from your friends, and if you can put up with a few quirks, there aren’t many small cars that have as much personality as the Fiat 500 does.  The tall folks among us can just be thankful that the re-interpretation of the Cinquecento grew 20 inches in length from the original, or we would really look funny in the car.

Fiat provided the car, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m still wondering why we don’t have a dealer in Nashville. Memphis has had one since the retro Fiat 500 was first unleashed. All I get from the Fiat website is ‘coming soon’ to Nashville. ‘Soon’ has already come and gone.

  2. To charge $4,000 more for this VERY simplified type of open roof (remember, Fiat couldn’t afford a “real” cabrio a la Mini) is almost offensive. Smart only charges $3,000 more for its convertible, and it is much more open than the 500C. I do like the car though, just think it is too pricey in C version.

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