Review: Fiat...Deep in the Heart of Texas

by Michael Satterfield

The original was a response to the Suez Crisis of 1956, the post-war European economy was beginning to wake up and by 1955 half of all ships passing through the Suez Canal were oil tankers. Fiat, no stranger to small cars, had released the Fiat 600 in 1955, however, with the oil crisis of 1956 it was clear that an even more fuel efficient car was needed for the growing urban centers in Europe. The Fiat 500 is considered by many to be the first "City Car".

But that is enough history, today people are still concerned about oil prices, cities are still growing, and most are looking for stylish alternatives to the standard econobox. Just as it was in the late 1950's the Fiat 500 and Mini Cooper stepped up to answer the call with little cars that have a little personality.

As a car lover... I could not wait for the new Fiat 500 to hit US Shores, I had owned several classic Fiats over the years, but had not driven a new Fiat since my last trip to Europe. So I did what most people would do and drove over to the local dealership (they call them Studios). The showrooms are slick, clean red and white paneling, smooth Italian styled cabinets and displays, a coffee bar, and lots of glass. The only problem with the dealer is that no one would walk out and help me. After spending 20 mins walking around the lot, looking at every car, no one would come out. Now back when I sold cars, you get someone on the lot, at 10AM on a weekday, that's a good opportunity.

So I made my way into the showroom where I found no-one. I began to wonder if I had missed the rapture, but at last I spotted a salesperson sitting a glass office. I waved and shouted hello. He looked up with little regard and turned back to whatever it was he was doing. So needless to say, the first drive of a 500 would not come from Fiat of Ontario. I reached out to them, but that is another story for another time. I was headed to Dallas anyways.


I landed in Dallas, it was over 100 degrees and the humidity from incoming thunderstorms made it feel even hotter. I watched as people darted in and out of air-conditioned cars into the terminal and back again, as if they could avoid feeling the heat. "CC66...sir,sir, your car is parked in CC66" said the lady from behind the counter. "Thank you" I said as a fumbled for my sunglasses. Outside the air was as thick, the heat was intense, the kind of heat you can only experience on blacktop, it radiates from all directions and even the soles of your feet are hot. I found CC66, there it was bright red, one of only four colors an Italian car can really be. The others being Yellow, Black, and Silver.

Getting into the car I began to acclimate myself with all the bells and whistles, for someone that drives a 1969 Mini Cooper everyday the number of flashing lights and dials was impressive, and slightly overwhelming. The window buttons are not on the door and after a few moments searching I discovered them on the center console. For a car that is so small some buttons (such as the passenger side window) are kind of a reach for the driver. Thankfully this car was equipped with the steering-wheel mounted radio controls.

The car seemed to get mixed reactions as a drove into town, some people would thumbs up, others from their towering pickups would shake their head as if to shame me, still others looked at me as if I were Al-Qaeda descending on their city. The body color dash panel is a nice touch, it gives the car that 1960's feel that they were going for, however, I just know some aftermarket company is going to come up with a simulated carbon fiber snap-on cover for it. If you buy a 500 please avoid the urge to install wood or carbon fiber anywhere on it!!!

The aftermarket is already working hard to make the Fiat 500 the next PT Cruiser. For some reason, Fiat has decided to market the accessories under the MOPAR name here in the US. Because when you think MOPAR you think small and European. So far they have mostly come up with chrome fuel doors, mirror covers, decals, and the normal racks for all the extreme sports you will be doing in your Fiat. Don't worry they already coming out with MOPAR seat covers, shift knobs, and wheel centers for your Fiat.

The seats are trimmed in cloth and vinyl, they are comfortable and supportive, for an inexpensive car have a good range of movement. The back seats fold nicely, but with the seats up you have just about enough trunk space for a fat Basset Hound. With the seat down you have more room than the MINI and about the same as the new Mazda 2/Ford Fiesta.

Driving all over Dallas I found myself looking at maps since there was no built in Navigation. I know that the retro dashboard layout does not lend itself to a navigation system, but MINI figured it out. Instead of doing it the right way Fiat has teamed up with Tom Tom, and created a dock that is mounted on the top of the dash, the system takes up about half of the windscreen and makes the car looks like a guy wearing dirty thrift-store t-shirt under a Armani suit. It just does not fit.The Navigation system is a $400 option and for that money your better off just getting the standard $149 Tom Tom with the large window blocking suction cup mount and spending the rest of that money on 512 $0.49 red burritos from Del Taco!

That does bring up the price, while the basic model does start at $15,500 the pricing quickly spikes up from there. The top of the line Fiat 500 Lounge C (C is for Cabriolet) will set you back $23,500 and that's before you add the options. You want heated fronts seats and an auto dimming mirror that will be $450. Leather $1,250. A wifi hot spot in the car? give'em $499. Special order color $849, a red white and green racing sticker down the side? $399 so it all adds up pretty quickly. All said you can kit out a Fiat 500 to just under $30,000...and that is before you start adding your MOPAR parts to it.

So...ummm...yeah...$30K....Fiat 500....hummmmm. If you really have you heart set on an Italian Convertible for around $30K, I would suggest a previously loved Maserati Spyder, Qvale Mangusta, or go British and pick up a gently used Lotus Elise. With the Lotus you get the best of a Fiat... its small, impractical, flashy, and gets good gas mileage. But you get one thing that the current Fiat can't give you....the Lotus is also fun to drive.

So how does the Fiat 500 drive, well the as tested Fiat 500 Sport, came in at just over $19K, the car is a "sport" because it has a button that says so on the dash. I think it is just the overdrive button most automatic cars have that disengages the overdrive. But this one says Sport so therefore it makes the car more sporty. It also gets the sporty alloy wheels and some other styling upgrades. However, the 101hp and 98 lb-ft of torque do little to inspire a sporty driving experience. (The Turbocharged Abarth model is needed ASAP.)

The sport model would have benefited from steering wheel mounted shifters since reaching for the +/- "Sport" shifting gets old quickly and I ended up just putting it back in full automatic. The dashboard mounted shifter is just far enough out of reach to feel uncomfortable, a feeling I got in the manual transmission version as well. I kept looking for the low between the seats, well placed shifter of my classic Mini Cooper that allowed you to push and pull the gear changes. This feels more like a toggle switch that has to be pulled at an odd angle. Fiat may have designed the shifter this way on purpose, it forces you to keep both hands on the wheel, something that is important when you are driving the 500 at speed. Take a corner and the car feels like it is going to pitch over and roll, the back end bounces and misses no opportunity to take flight. This translates into a unsettled and uncontrolled feeling in any corner that is not perfectly smooth and level. The four-wheel discs do allow you to brake later as keeping momentum is important in the 500, but you are quickly cured of any urge to take a corner at speed. I was hoping for more of an original Golf GTI or Classic Mini Cooper feel in the handling department, but the only go-kart similarity the 500 has is the wheelbase.

Perhaps we are asking too much from the 500, it is about 6 grand less than a comparable MINI, and while the MINI has a racing heritage and pedigree, the standard 500 was never known as a performer, it took Abarth who doubled the cubic inches, and reworked the entire suspension and chassis to make it a worthwhile racer. The standard Fiat 500 is serving its purpose the original was intended for, a cute, affordable (if you go with a base model), city car that can deliver MPG in the high 30's. It has a good A/C system, good fit and finish, it looks the part, but the "Sport" is a bit misleading.

It will take some time to see if the new 500 has more than just the cuteness appeal, once those who buy the car as a fashion accessory are done shopping will the drawbacks make the 500 this years SMART-CAR?

Original 500