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2018 FIAT 500
New Car Test Drive

Introduction

The Fiat 500 offers character in place of spaciousness, Italian charm in place of performance. Under the hood, though, the new turbocharged base engine delivers 33 percent more horsepower than its non-turbo predecessor. Essentially, it’s the same 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine installed in 2015-16 Turbo models.

Except for a new spoiler, side-sill ground effects extensions, and body-colored front/rear fascias, the 500 hatchback and Cabrio haven’t changed sharply in appearance for the 2018 model year. In fact, they still look quite similar to the original 2012 version, a modern rendition of the Fiat 500, or cinquecento, that debuted in the 1950s.

New 16-inch aluminum wheels are mounted. A rearview camera is now standard, as are foglamps and a sports suspension.

As before, the Fiat 500 comes in Pop, Lounge, and Abarth trim levels. Each has front-wheel drive and is offered either as a hatchback or a Cabrio, the latter featuring a power-folding fabric roof.

Standard in Pop and Lounge models, the new base engine develops 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Although the power increase is most welcome when merging or passing, the lower-powered 500 doesn’t quite qualify as sporty.

That’s the goal of the Abarth edition, packing a free-breathing, 160-horsepower version of the 1.4-liter turbo four, developing 170 pound-feet of torque. (With automatic, output drops to 157 horsepower, but torque reaches 183 pound-feet.) Both engines mate with either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Crash-test results are troubling. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 500 a four-star rating overall and for frontal impact, with five stars for side-impact. For 2018, the agency gave the hatchback a four-star frontal score, but no ratings overall or for side-impact.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2017 model’s driver’s side a Poor rating for small-overlap frontal crash protection. No rating was issued for the passenger side. In side-impact and moderate-overlap testing, the 500 earned Good scores.

The newly standard rearview camera is most welcome on Cabrios, which suffer dismal rearward vision when the roof is down. Advanced safety features, such as automatic emergency braking and active lane control, are unavailable.

Model Lineup

Pop hatchback ($16,245) comes with the 135-horsepower turbo engine, 5-speed manual gearbox,16-inch wheels, rearview camera, sport spoiler, 5.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster, cloth seat upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and Bluetooth. A 6-speed automatic transmission and navigation are optional. (Prices do not include $1,245 destination charge.)

Lounge hatchback ($19,745) adds heated leather-trimmed front seats, automatic climate control, satellite radio, rear parking sensors, fixed glass roof, and chromed shift knob.

Abarth hatchback ($20,495) upgrades to the 160-horsepower turbo four, along with red brake calipers, a performance-tuned suspension, forged 16-inch wheels, and high-back cloth seats. Manual air conditioning is standard.

Pop Cabrio ($17,740) is equipped like Pop hatchback, but substitutes a black power-folding roof and adds rear parking sensors.

Lounge Cabrio ($21,240) is equipped like Lounge hatchback, but with power-folding roof.

Abarth Cabrio ($21,990) is equipped like Abarth hatchback, but with power-folding roof.

Walkaround

Not many cars can claim to look like nothing else on the road, but Fiat’s indisputably charming, stylish 500 is one of them. In addition to presenting a delightfully cute profile, fully capturing the essence of the old “cinquecento” model, it’s one of the smallest cars available.

What might be dubbed “button” style round headlights flank a small grille opening, suggestive of European minicars of the distant past. Up front, some added bulkiness brings the 500 in line with today’s crash-safety requirements. The new standard spoiler looks sharp, but not overly obtrusive.

Abarth models display some uniquely sporty details, including red brake calipers, in accord with their rambunctious nature.

On Cabrio models, the fabric roof power-folds into the rear. Unfortunately, it practically blocks rearward views.

Interior

Reflecting their heritage, body-colored Fiat 500 dashboards flaunt a jumble of buttons and variety of textures, shunning the familiar black trim. Unconventional design helps conceal some low-budget materials.

Four adults simply won’t fit into the hatchback, in particular, without agreeing to some comfort compromises. Rear legroom totals a modest 31.7 inches, making them more useful as a cargo shelf than a seating position, especially for longer treks.

Front seats are larger and more appealing than those in back, but they’re thinly padded and somewhat upright. For that reason, a taller driver might be short on head clearance. Lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility might not please younger buyers.

Cargo space is oddly shaped as well as skimpy, at a mere 9.5 cubic feet (5.4 cubic feet in Cabrios). Except for the battery-powered 500e variant, these Fiats can be noisy, especially the Abarth, whose abundant sounds amplify its rowdier personality.

Driving Impressions

Increased base-engine power is a welcome change, even if it doesn’t make the Pop or Lounge edition seriously sporty. Turbo power gives the less-potent models a degree of confidence that was previously absent. Even so, the base engine still demands a rather heavy foot on the gas pedal to keep it at optimum strength.

Only the Abarth edition feels truly energetic, even though its horsepower rating isn’t dramatically higher than the base engine delivers. Especially when cold, starting up in the morning, the crackling Abarth exhaust can be as enticing as a siren’s song to an enthusiast’s ear.

In manual-shift models, the shift lever has to move quite a long way when changing gears. Clutch behavior doesn’t feel right, either, engaging at a pedal-travel position that seems too high. For daily driving and commuter duty, the automatic transmission might be a wiser choice.

Expect a relatively bouncy ride, which is a typical characteristic with small cars. On long hauls, in particular, the Fiat 500 can start to feel a bit jittery, due at least in part to the sport-tuned suspension (performance-tuned on Abarth versions).

Fuel economy isn’t as appealing as expected, compared to other small cars. With automatic, all three trim levels are EPA-rated at the same 24/32 mpg City/Highway, or 27 mpg Combined. Manual shift raises the estimates to 28/33 mpg City/Highway, or 30 mpg Combined. Premium gasoline is recommended.

Summary

Since its inception as a 2012 model, the still-charming Fiat 500 has focused on style and panache over performance. For plenty of buyers, character and personality take precedence over any cabin flaws or roadgoing imperfections. A more potent Abarth promises boisterous fun, but it’s not suitable for everybody. Fiat offers Abarth buyers a free day of instruction at a track in Arizona.

Driving impressions by Aaron Cole, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.


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