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2011 Fiat 500 - High Five - DrivingScene

Categorized | Reviews

2011 Fiat 500 – High Five

Posted on 12 July 2011 by Adam Kaslikowski

Moxy. Some cars have it and some cars don’t. Hell, some people have it and some don’t. It’s that little bit of spirit and vigor that separates the Aston Martins from the Porsches of the world, the Samuel L. Jacksons from the Ben Afflecks. And does the Fiat 500 have it? In a word, YES.

The little car picks up where the MINI (its most direct competitor) left off 8 years ago. Small, stylish, cute, and fun; it’s like the 500 is a toy dog that ran away from a rich woman’s purse and hit the indie rock big time. Where the Mini is no longer seen as a unique choice or a “statement car,” the Fiat uses its more rounded features and retro interior to proclaim that the owner of this car is an individual who does not mind standing out.

Sitting in the mid-range Sport model – the 500 comes in Pop, Sport, and Lounge trims – is a mostly pleasant experience. The cabin is a refreshing place to be and it reminds you that you are in a spirited car. Cheap interior plastics are balanced out by the retro dash panel, the seats are great looking and not overly firm, and I love the headrests. The 500’s cabin slaps you in the face with a reminder that cheap cars don’t have to have cheap looking interiors. Now don’t get me wrong, the 500’s interior is most certainly cheap. Scratching on the plastics elicits a lovely sound on par with shaving with sandpaper – but it doesn’t look cheap, and that distinction is huge. The major touch points (steering wheel, gear shift, switches) are pleasing to the touch, and it is only when your hands venture away from these (to, say, the whole rest of the car) that the lower grade materials are found.

At just 140 inches long, the Fiat is 6 inches shorter than the MINI and more than a foot and half shorter than the Ford Fiesta; this car is seriously tiny. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel it once I stepped inside the cabin. Front legroom was not a problem for either myself (6” tall) or my passenger, whom even successfully climbed in the back to see if it was suitable for human habitation. It was, but she’s 5’1” and to be honest she also fits in the glove box.  Needless to say, the only way you are getting an “actual size” adult into the back seat is if they fold themselves into their own convenient carrying pouch.

The diminutive Fiat starts at $15,500 (in Pop trim), and for that you get power locks and windows, a 6 speaker CD/mp3 radio, 5-speed manual transmission, and 15” inch wheels. The $17,500 model I drove (Sport) throws in larger and better looking wheels, keyless entry, steering wheel controls, and fog lamps. The top of the range (Lounge) starts at $19,500, and this gains you climate control, “premium cloth seats” (leather is a $1,500 option), a six-speed automatic ‘box, a built in alarm system, and a fixed glass roof. However, by fully kitting up the Lounge model you can easily crest the $25K mark after tax and destination – and that’s decent used 3 series money.

The competition for the 500 is evenly split between new sub 20K cars (Honda Fit, MINI Cooper, Ford Fiesta, Kia Forte) and quality used cars. There will always be great used cars to be had in that price range, however for some people that just doesn’t matter. They want a new car for whatever reason that they do, and they will only be cross-shopping with the other stylish small cars in this price bracket. The Fit and Fiesta has been universally hailed as great rides but both are lacking in the soul department. The Kia certainly has soul but some are still unwilling to step into Korean cars (which really shouldn’t be the case anymore). And that leaves the MINI; soul and pedigree to waste, but more expensive than the Fiat and now too common a sight on the roads.

It will be interesting to see if Fiat/Chrysler can match MINI USA’s marketing gusto. The BMW sub-brand has conquered all competition because it has been able to firmly cement itself as the quirky and fun brand. I have little doubt that Fiat will have no problem selling the “fun” image for its 500, but none of the current advertisements really have any personality to speak of. Unless “standard car ad” is a personality. Only time will tell, but there’s no reason that Fiat shouldn’t able to step up and start eating other advertisers’ lunch with this car.

The thing about moxy though, is that you have to be able to back it up. This is where the 500 lets down. Mashing the accelerator and calling up the 101hp 1.4 liter engine results in all sound and no fury as you meander your way to 60 in 9.4 sec. It is frustrating that a car with this much outward personality is really writing checks that its engine can’t cash. Let me reiterate that driving the Fiat is fun enough, and the endless amount of stares and attention are their own reward, but there is an inescapable sense of being underwhelmed about the acceleration. Hopefully this will be solved when the higher output Abarth version hits our shores. So the engine is lacking, so what? The people who buy this car – those looking for an automotive fashion accessory – won’t be bothered by this fact. And what they overlook in horsepower and torque, they will be compensated for with a preternatural cornering ability. This thing dives into bends like an overexcited puppy and exits them with nary any forward momentum lost. Like driving any good European car, you begin to hunt after routes that require anything more right angles to navigate. The joy in this car comes from the first and last 3 miles of your daily commute.

The MINI has already shown us how this story ends – eventually car parks will be filled with 500s and your once unique car will be everywhere from high school parking lots to being ignominiously towed behind your weird aunt’s RV. But live it up with the 500 while you can. This is a great car at a great price. Welcome back Fiat.

-Adam Kaslikowski