Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge: Little Italy, big personality

2012 Fiat 500 - Subcompact Culture

The Italian-based Fiat brand has made its return to North America in a big way using a very small car. The Fiat 500 is an A-segment car that’s ready to do battle against a host of other small cars, including the venerable MINI Cooper, a vehicle that has owned the premium subcompact market since its introduction in 2002. Our test model was a top-of-the-line 2012 500 “Lounge” model with all of the luxury goods. Hey, it's good enough for J-Lo. So what do we think?

2012 Fiat 500 - Subcompact Culture

Andy: This car oozes personality; Fiat has done the retro thing right. Distinctive styling that looks both modern and classic, with many cues that point to the original Fiat 500. You don’t realize how small the 500’s dimensions are until you’re standing right next to one. They’re very small.

Our Lounge model came with classy 15” multi-spoke alloy wheels shod with smallish 185/55/15 tires. There are also projector headlights, fog lamps, and reverse sensors on the bumper. There’s a bit of chrome detailing here and there, too, which adds to the classic feel. I loved the Bianco Perla tri-coat paint, too. Bellissima.

Mercedes: I think the exterior is also modern and classic, bowing its head to the original Fiat 500’s design by mimicking the small, quirky shape. I agree with Andy on the paint and chrome detailing opinions, too. Overall, I think the exterior is eloquent, yet quirky in a very fun way.

2012 Fiat 500 Lounge interior - Subcompact Culture

Andy: Although the 500’s interior isn’t necessarily spacious, it was comfortable and airy; the glass roof helps with that, too. Space is at a premium, and most of the interior bits are smartly designed. Our test model had heated red leather seats, a color-matched white-pearl dash, a chunky white steering wheel (with audio and cruise controls), and black accents. You sit dead-center in the car, and the seating position is very upright and tall. I actually felt like I was sitting too high up, even when the seat was all the way down, and the seat adjustments weren’t in the usual spots. Definitely different. I also would've liked a bit more bolstering on the seats.

The center stack is a mix of push-button digital and old-world buttons. At first, I couldn’t find the window switches, which are actually located next to the gear shift on the dash. The automatic climate control is easy enough to use, though, and did a good job quickly heating up the cabin in the cool Oregon autumn. Our 500’s Bose stereo provided an exceedingly crisp, clear listening experience. It also included a small subwoofer in the trunk. In addition, the car had the Blue & Me connectivity feature. Once set up, it worked very well.

2012 Fiat 500 cargo area
The rear seats are usable for adults, but not for long periods of time. We picked up our friend for dinner one night, and she said it was comfortable, but still pretty tiny. Those seats do fold down to maximize cargo space. With the seats folded up, there is a small cargo area. It wasn’t, however, large enough to accommodate a larger suitcase.

The one thing I didn’t like about the interior had nothing to do with size. Rather, I found the all-in-one round gauge cluster difficult to read. There’s a lot going on: An outside ring houses the speedometer. A middle ring has the tachometer. Then, a center digital cluster showcases a host of info from speed (yes, it has digital and analog speed), outside temp, fuel, and a bunch of other menus you can scroll through. At night, the entire thing is illuminated in amber. It just didn’t do it for me.

Mercedes: The Fiat’s attempt at being the next European "it car” (think VW New Beetle or MINI Cooper) is valiant. The interior feels open and plush. The play of red leather and white-pearl materials make this lively living quarters. The dash is laid out nicely but most of the controls are push-buttons, of which take more time and effort to work vs. dials. The shifter looks retro cool; however, I worry about the gloss-black finish at its base scratching. The all-in-one driver gauge cluster is, well, a bit of a cluster. It’s hard to read and a bit disjointed. It looks retro and cool, but is hard to read.

2012 Fiat 500 driving - Subcompact Culture
Andy: Fiat’s sophisticated 1.4-liter 16-valve MultiAir engine makes 101 horsepower and 98 ft./lbs. of torque. Our test model was equipped with the six-speed automatic, which has manual shifting capability. Although I would’ve greatly preferred the manual transmission, the automatic does a good job getting the subcompact Italian up to speed, and I love the fact that, unlike most “manumatic” transmissions, to shift up, you pull back on the stick, not push it forward—much more intuitive. I will say that the engine makes quite a bit of noise, even when it’s not being pushed. And when it is pushed, there’s a lot of sound coming from under the hood.

The Fiat gets up and goes quite well around town, even with the automatic. Push the sport button on the dash and you’ll get noticeably better throttle response and quicker steering , too. Aided by a great turning radius, the 500 is at home in urban settings. Its steering feel is good (especially in sport mode), and as you’d probably imagine, as a whole, it’s very responsive and fun to drive. Its combination of size, pep, and great handling made me feel as if I could drive it 100 MPH everywhere. It’s very tossable.

One of the biggest surprises is the confident highway manners. I didn’t expect the 500 to behave so well at speed. It feels like a larger car and feels substantial. Passing should be done with care as there isn’t a ton of power on tap when at speed.

The EPA fuel ratings are a bit underwhelming at 27 city, 34 highway. With many subcompacts (and compacts) getting 30+ city and 40 highway, the 500 is towards the lower end of the spectrum despite its diminutive size. I managed 28 during my week with the 500, mostly in city driving.

Mercedes: Despite the noisy engine and fuel economy ratings, the 500 is fun to drive. I also felt I sat unusually high inside, but I felt like you can scoot around pretty much anywhere in it. Plus its small size is a big plus when squeezing into small parking spots.

Andy: The Fiat 500 is smaller than the MINI Cooper, but bigger than a Smart ForTwo (and drives about 100 times better). It certainly is a contender in the premium subcompact market, especially with its host of available amenities and great driving dynamics. The price for the Lounge model is at a premium: $22,300. If you don’t need all the upper-end options, you can get into a Fiat 500 “Pop” trim level for under $17,000.

There’s no denying the appeal of this car, though. It’s attractive, fun, fresh, and funky.

Mercedes: If you want a cool, cushy, and charismatic car to own, check out the Fiat 500. This  subcompact is both a comfortable highway cruiser as well as a zippy around-the-town adventurer… Urban dwellers rejoice; another confident and fun small car has arrived.


nlpnt said...

Glass roof? Is it fixed or is it a true opening sunroof?

I stand by my original analysis of the spec sheet; the Pop with manual transmission and a few carefully selected options to taste is probably the way to go.

Andy Lilienthal said...

The roof is fixed.

If I were to buy a 500, I too would go for the Pop with the manual. FYI, the Lounge version here is only available with the six-speed automatic.

Chris said...

Sport, manual, no options for me. Great review!

Re: the manumatic, I also think pulling back to upshift is more intuitive. I don't understand why so many enthusiast magazines want you to push forward to upshift.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't buy it. If someone gave me one, yeah. The gas mileage specs aren't that great for such a small car, and let's face it....Fiat doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation. I could care less if it's cute. How often will I have to take it into the shop once the warranty expires is what I care about....

DJ Kenny said...

I wish they offered a entry level manual window, manual side view mirror, nice grippy Recaro seat model. For much the same reasons I am not interested in a modern day GTI's I am not interested in Minis and 50's. They have too much crap in them that I do not want nor do I want to pay for.

Cheryl918 said...

Bought my car on 3/31/12, Fiat's been in the shop 17 days as of today with a leak that can't be found..4 times trying to repair it and my car looks like they were looking for drugs in it..passenger seat removed, floor exposed, ruined seats and they still do not know where the leak is coming from. I just want my money back and FIAT refuses..I'm calling a lawyer tomorrow.