Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge

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I’ll start this review by telling you I was quite excited to find out I was getting a Fiat 500 to test drive.

I’ve heard great things, and frankly, I’ve been looking forward to driving one.

The Fiat 500 is available in several trim levels – the base model comes in 3 levels and then there is the performance-minded version, the Abarth.  My tester was the top-of-the-line Lounge model.  Other than a stupid name, let’s see what this package gets you.  Everything I mention here was in my car, and I’ll tell you when it’s an option and how much it costs.

The 500 starts at a very cheap CDN $15,995.  From there, it goes up.  The Lounge trim starts at CDN $19,500 and my car, as tested, rang in at CDN $23,925.

Starting under the stubby little slanted hood, we find a very tightly-packed engine bay, holding Fiat’s modern MultiAir 1.4 Litre inline-4.  It uses a number of interesting twists and turns in terms of how it manages combustion through intake valve actuation, blah blah blah.  In the end, it gives you quicker throttle response and more power and torque, cleaner driving and better fuel efficiency.  The official numbers are 101 HP @ 6500 RPM and 98 lb. ft of torque at 4000 RPM.  Certainly nothing to write home about, but after having spent some time with it, I can see where they’re coming from.  Whatever is going on under the hood is doing things right – throttle response is quick, accurate and satisfying, and I never felt that this car was lacking power or flexibility – in terms of this class of vehicle, and within this price range.

Mileage is, of course, a big selling point with cars this size, and this one is no exception.  The 500 is rated at 7.4 L/100 km (32 mpg) in the city, and 5.7 L/100 km (41 mpg) on the highway.  Those are good numbers.  During my time with it, I saw an average of 7.3 L/100 km (32 mpg) from mixed driving – quite a bit of city driving and several extended freeway trips – none of it driven economically.  I wasn’t trying to save fuel, so I was happy with this mileage.  It’s a good thing it gets good mileage, because you only get a 40 Litre tank.

Although the engine bay is tight, the fluids and anything you might want to be serviceable for the average person is easily accessible.  The engine, in this case, was mated to a 6-speed Aisin automatic transmission which I’ll talk about a little later.

 

Exterior

Here’s the real story, in my opinion.  I actually really like the exterior styling of the 500, although having seen the Abarth at the LA Auto Show this summer, I am much more taken with its more aggressive look.

That said, the 500 has some fun lines to look at it.  It’s cartoonish, but in a pleasant way.  It is a very small car, regardless of which angle you’re looking at it from.  Parked beside a “normal” car, it looks puny.  It’s short, but not too low.  The front grille looks friendly, and the back looks sporty-ish.  The rear is a severe angle, and that partially affects what happens on the inside – but without that slant, it wouldn’t look nearly as good.

The wheels are pushed as far out to the corners as possible, which minimizes any overhang, and maximizes what they can do inside the car.

I liked the splashes of chrome – they are well-placed, and give the 500 Lounge a bit of a sparkle.  You’ll find it on the mirrors, strips on the front and back bumper areas as well as around the tail lights.

The wheels are nice, and run on 185/55-15’s – seemingly tiny rubber, but wholly appropriate for a car this size.  You’ll find nice fog lights in the front air dam, and a tall roof-mounted antenna.

There’s a single, chrome flattened-oval exhaust tip – I’m not a fan, and would prefer a round exhaust tip, but that’s just me.

 

Interior

Open the door, and plop yourself into the handsome “Italian leather” seats.  They look good with their vertically-stiched lines, and they feel good.  They’re manually adjustable, and heated – the seat heaters are a $300 option.  I found the seats very comfortable and reasonably bolstered.  You won’t go hitting the race track with them, but for normal driving, they’re good.  The driver’s seat (only) has an armrest that can swing up and out of the way.

The headroom is acceptable, but honestly, it’s not great.  I’m not tall, and I felt as though I was practically looking into my folded-up vanity mirror.  The legroom was pretty limited too – everyone drives differently, of course, but the way I do it, my right knee was permanently resting against an uncomfortable hard plastic surface on the center stack.

You’re surrounded by hard plastics.  I mean, there are no soft touches anywhere, except small padded panes on the door panels.  That’s it.  That used to fly in this class, but the competition is stepping it up, and materials are going upscale with each and every model revision, it seems.  Let’s hope that holds true for the 500 as well.

You do have a fun body-colored swath of plastic that runs horizontally across the dash, which is a welcome splash of color and livens things up a bit.  I noticed an abundance of round shapes – everywhere you look, you’ll find a circle of some sort.  It’s as if Mini and Fiat are having a “who can have the most round crap in one car” competition.  Some of them get just downright weird – like the headrests.  It’s just too much sometimes.

In front of you, you’ll see a combo-gauge.  That’s my wording.  It’s a combination between two circular gauges – the speedometer on the outside ring, and the tach on the inner ring – and a digital driver information screen in the centre.  Everything’s round.  I don’t like it.  It’s not particularly easy or quick to read, and not particularly nice to look at either.

 

I really liked the steering wheel.  It felt good, and worked well.  It’s manually adjustable for tilt, but it doesn’t telescope in or out for reach.

The center stack starts with some vents on top, the media system below, a row of three buttons (Sport mode, 4-way flashers and rear defroster), a chunky-looking climate control area and then a pregnant-belly-like pod that sticks out – it houses the power window switches and the shift lever.

There isn’t really a center console – it’s more like just a couple of things on the floor.  There’s a storage area at the front and a traditional parking brake lever.

The overall ergonomics in the 500 seem to be more about form than function.  There seems to be a nod toward style, but I’m not sure what style it is.  It just seems to be behind the curve in terms of ergonomic soundness and design.

 

Tech/Convenience

There’s not a ton of goodies in the Fiat 500, but there’s enough to keep most people happy, and to get you comfortably from here to there.

The driver information screen in the middle of the gauge “cluster” – more like a hive than a cluster – is round, and shows you a lot of information.  To be honest, it’s too much for that screen.  It consistently displays your gas gauge and engine temperature, as well as the outside temperature, your gear selection, the date and time, a digital speedometer and the odometer.  Then you can cycle through a number of other things, using a horrible 3-button system which never ended up making sense to me.  Thankfully the additional information isn’t stuff I really care to cycle through on a regular basis anyway – there’s some trip data and many vehicle settings.  Unfortunately you get no read-outs of your mileage or fuel range – which are useful to me, and should be included with all cars.  I found the entire thing a bit unfriendly to try to read quickly or to use, in terms of the sub-menus and buttons.

The steering wheel has controls for the voice recognition (Fiat calls their system Blue&Me – what?!), Bluetooth/phone use and cruise control.  You’ll also find media/stereo controls on the back of the steering wheel where you might find shift paddles on other cars.  It’s a weird system (which I have on my own Chrysler product) – you eventually get used to it, but I prefer buttons on the front of the steering wheel where I can see them and know what I’m pressing.

Speaking of the voice recognition – the system in the 500 is very fast and very accurate – I was quite impressed with it.

The stereo is a BOSE unit, with a few speakers spread around, including a subwoofer under the passenger seat.  It feeds off of AM, FM, satellite radio, CD, auxiliary or USB sources, including iPod/iPhone control.  The auxiliary and USB plugs are in the glove compartment.  I thought the sound system sounded great, and it offered a nicely padded bass response – much more than I can say for other cars in this class.  However, I felt that the design and ergonomics of the system came across as rather old-school – although the collection of hard buttons were relatively easy to navigate, it felt as though you’d find this system on a car that was 5 to 10 years old.

The climate control system is automatic, and works well.  There’s a 12 V plug in the center stack, near the main cupholder bin.

Overhead, you’ll find a nice tilt/slide sunroof, with a manual sliding sunshade.  This is a $500 option.

The power door locks are an interesting twist.  It honestly took me about 2 minutes (which seems like hours when you’re searching around a cubicle-sized car) to figure out where to activate the power door locks from within the car.  The door openers are styled levers – and quite nice at that.  To lock the doors, you just push the driver’s lever toward the door, and it locks the doors.  Quite a neat feature.  On that note, I challenged a couple of others to figure that out, and nobody could.  I hope that’s in the manual somewhere.  OH!  Speaking of the manual, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.  In the day and age of 400 page car manuals, the Fiat 500’s is refreshingly simple.  It’s written in excellent, simple English, and doesn’t overcomplicate matters.  Yes, it’s a simple car, true, but it’s nice that they kept the literature simple and fun too.  I liked that.

The heated power mirrors are controlled from the driver’s door panel.

Finally, this car had a parking distance sensor with audible alarms, which will cost you $375.  Not sure if that’s worth it, since you can pretty much reach out your back window and touch whatever is behind the car, because you’re only a couple of feet away from the hatch lid.

 

Storage

There ain’t a lot.  Surprise, surprise, surprise.

The 500 has a nice-sized glove compartment, which is easily accessible.  In there, you’ll also find a small, but highly usable mesh pocket – perfect to hold whatever device you might have connected to the auxiliary or USB plugs.  Smart.

Below the pregnant-belly pod sticking out of the center stack, you’ll find a weird bin type of thing.  Look closer and you’ll see it’s actually a triangle of three cupholders, and in front of them is a small, vertical slot – absolutely perfect to stand a smart phone in.  And it’s deep enough that the phone is highly unlikely to go flying even in the face of emergency braking, etc.  I liked that.

The door bins are long and easily accessible space – I found them to be quite useful.

The rear cargo space is the only true storage capacity to speak of here.  Surprisingly, although it’s a small space, it’s bigger than I expected and quite usable.  Of course, should you fold down the rear seats (they fold in a 50/50 split), you’ll find that space increasing exponentially, and you’ll find yourself able to transport much more than you might think with this car.  I wouldn’t quite sign up to move your friend’s piano yet, but still, it’s not bad at all.  Note that the rear seats don’t fold flat.  Oh, I should mention that the rear hatch is perfectly light when it comes to opening and closing it – the gas shocks are absolutely flawless in how they are calibrated.  It’s a little detail, but it’s great.

Last, and pretty much least, there is a small mesh pocket on the side of the center stack for the passenger.  I guess you could slip a flask or something in there.  It’s near the passenger’s knee, so I’d recommend popping a nice soft pad in there, to ease the pain of having to rest your leg on the hard plastics…

 

Rear Seat

The back seat, contrary to what you might think, is actually not that bad to get into.  I mean, it’s no Rolls Royce Phantom back seat, but considering that this car is practically microscopic, it’s not horrible.

The seats are quite comfortable.  As the picture shows, the seats are virtually flat and offer no bolstering, but they work fine and weren’t uncomfortable.  They do have truly strange round headrests that look weird, and absolutely have to be moved up if there are rear passengers – they can be moved down (I’m guessing to get out of the rear view for the driver) but they would sit in the middle of your shoulders.  It seems that form beat out function here again.

There are 2 headrests and 2 seat belts.  The legroom is tight, and the headroom is tight.  This is coming from a not-very-tall guy, so any six-footers would be screwed back there, unless you’re a contortionist.  Interestingly, the foot room is great – lots of room under the front seats.

You get a little armrest ledge for your outside arm – that seems like a friendly gesture at first, but then you notice that your shoulder is permanently pushed against the hard side of the car above the arm rest ledge.  And it’s not that comfy back there.  Obviously riding in the back of the 500 should be for short distances, well-behaved dogs or enemies.

The visibility out is OK, but it does get pretty cozy after about 15 seconds.

In terms of convenience, you’ll find 2 inline cupholders on the floor between and slightly behind the front seats and map pockets on the backs of the front seats.

Family friendliness is really out the window here.  Although my kids got into the back easily, my 7 year-old daughter complained that it seemed cramped – that’s a sign.  In case you’re really into torturing yourself and want to get kids’ seats back there, you will find 2 sets of LATCH anchors.  Be my guest.  I hope you have chiropractic coverage.

 

The Drive

Where do I start?  Let’s start with the good news, shall we?

As noted earlier, I never felt that this car was severely underpowered – you can’t say that about all cars that put out 100 HP.  The little MultiAir engine sounds great, and rips and snorts a bit when you get on the gas.  I had a few people comment about that when I stepped on it. The engine makes decent torque at lower RPM than you expect, and the power is fine for urban driving.  As a matter of fact, this car might even be a tad quicker than it feels.  It will get up to decent speeds around the city without trying too hard, and might surprise you once a while when you look at the speedo.

The handling is definitely competent.  Though the car feels somewhat top-heavy, it will do whatever you ask of it in corners.  Throw the 500 into a corner, and it will go where you’ve pointed it.

The brakes were great, and always did what I asked them to do.  Which was brake.  Actually one time I asked them to recite a haiku, and they did NOT do what I asked them to do.

The electronic steering is incredibly low-effort – this is fantastic for low-speed maneuvering such as u-turns and parking – coupled with an amazing turning circle, you’ve got a winner in this department.  But the effort doesn’t increase much as the speed increases, and I found that to be a bit disconcerting.  I felt that, as you start driving faster in this car, the steering gets weirder and weirder.  It feels as though it’s never happy on-center and always wants to drift one way or the other.  I would prefer higher effort requirements in the steering once you’re driving around.

The ride is quite firm – expected in a small car with a short wheelbase.  But at times it borders on too firm to be called comfortable.  However, what isn’t intermittent is the bounciness and choppiness.  I understand we’ve got a short wheelbase to work with, and that makes it all but impossible to soak up dips and bumps, because the whole car is going over or through them at the same time.  What that leaves you with is that your head is basically bobbing back and forth the entire time you’re driving.  Edmonton’s crappy roads weren’t a great way to get to experience the 500’s ride.  I hesitate to call it harsh, but I can comfortably (perhaps not the right word to use here?) say that I felt a lot like I was on a giant pogo stick at times, especially over roads that had dips and wallows in them.

I’m not sure if this is a steering or a suspension thing, or a combination, but I felt that braking while steering made the car feel very unsettled.  Not like it was going to lose control, but like it was confused.  I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has experienced that.

I did have a few trips down the freeway, and I found the car has quite elevated wind and road noise levels and was very susceptible to sidewinds.  All those factors would get very irritating on a road trip.

Outward visibility is very good with one exception.  As the driver, you can’t do a left-side shoulder check.  It’s not even a possibility.  You don’t see anything but an amorphous mass of B- and C-pillar.  To counter this, Fiat has added a small convex mirror to the side-view mirror – it allows you to see the normal mirror view, as well as what’s slightly further back in the lane next to you – exactly what you’d be shoulder checking for.  It sounds silly, but it actually works very well once you get used to relying on it.  It does take getting used to though, and the first couple of times I tried shoulder checking, I may or may not have had to change my underpants, because I couldn’t see a thing and by the time I did figure out there was a huge jacked-up diesel truck beside me, I realized the car I was in would fit into the truck’s tread pattern.

I wasn’t too enamored with the Aisin 6-speed automatic either.  Personally I feel a car like this needs to be driven with a manual – it’s spirit begs for that.  But when saddled with an automatic, a small car doesn’t have to suck.  Check out my Kia Rio review for proof.  But this one wasn’t that great. The transmission isn’t particularly fast on the shifts, nor is it particularly smooth.  It’s not a horrible gearbox, don’t get me wrong.  But what it has against it is the one thing it can’t do anything about – the competition.  I have definitely experienced faster manual shifts from other automatics as well.

The one thing I did think made the driving experience better was depressing the “Sport” button.  What it does is tightens up the shift patterns, holding shifts longer and downshifting occasionally, makes the throttle response snappier and significantly increases the steering effort.  These things don’t make the ride or the transmission any smoother, but it does add a little sportiness to the character of the drive.

 

Nitpicks

I’ve got a few gripes here, so bear with me.

First of all, I did notice a number of jiggly sounds coming from what sounds like the window or door seals – they’d occur over rougher surfaces but were highly noticeable.  I wouldn’t classify them as squeaks or rattles, but they were irritating nevertheless.

I’m a big cupholder fan, and was surprised to find 5 of them in this tiny car.  Unfortunately they all suck.  I use a standard size Starbucks travel mug, and it was too tight to get it into any of the cupholders.  Not cool.

The latch for the sliding sunshade is thumb-actuated and is one of the worst designs I’ve seen in a long time – it’s difficult to open or close.  There have to be a hundred better ways to make that work, and I can’t imagine why they would have settled on this way.  It’s simply poor design.

I understand that rear seats are practically an afterthought in cars like this, but if you’re going to put them in there, then service them.  There is no lighting anywhere near the back seats.  Anywhere.  So IF you have rear passengers, which you just might once in a while, and it’s dark outside, which it might be once in a while, they will be unhappily searching for their seatbelt buckles.  Which I had happen – more than once.  Just an irritant.

With all the new-fangled ways of doing things, I still appreciate a volume knob.  This car doesn’t have one.  Up and down volume buttons.  Not good for making quick and accurate adjustments to volume.  Also, if you want to use the ones on the dash, you can’t do it without looking.

I thought the seat cushions were too short.  The thigh support was inches away from the back of my knee and it always felt as though there should be more seat.

It seems like a weird choice to put only one 12 V plug in the car, and then not to put it where the auxiliary and USB plugs are.  Yes, I know USB usually charges itself, but still – why not put them all together in the glove compartment?

This is a quality issue, but still – the allen bolt in the door frame holding the door detent strip was loose – which means every time I opened my door past the first detent (which is EVERY time), there was a loud bang.  Not cool at all.  It’s a simple fix but still, it shouldn’t happen.

 

The Verdict

I hate that I didn’t love this car.  I was so looking forward to driving it, and for the most part, I did enjoy my time with it.  But there was enough to throw me off too.  I was surprised at the ergonomics that seemed to be behind the competition, and to be honest I wasn’t smitten with the quality or the relative lack of equipment/tech/goodies, especially compared to the competition at this price.

I know you’re paying a little more for the design, and yes, it is a cool little car.  It’s certainly a life-style choice, and I think it certainly qualifies as a viable urban transporter – a great little car to rip around the city with.

I wouldn’t recommend this car for highway driving, nor for more than 2 people.  And I took exception to some of the anomalies and unpredictabilities in terms of steering/suspension, especially at higher speeds.

I give the Fiat 500 a 6 out of 10.  I do know that the performance-oriented Abarth is said to have a much better suspension, with a much more buttoned-down approach to cornering, etc.  Not to mention a 60% increase in horsepower.  Hello!  I’d absolutely love to test one of those, as I have a feeling it would address most of the issues I had with the 500 Lounge.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was pretty high.  Obviously our family doesn’t all fit in this car, but my wife liked the looks of the car, and she thought it was fun.

I wish I’d liked more about the Fiat 500 Lounge, and I wish I could have given it a sparkling review.  I’m guessing they’ll improve on things as this model evolves, and as noted, I’m certain the Abarth would take care of most of what I complained about.  In terms of it’s size and what you get for your money, I’d find it hard to highly recommend this car for practicality’s sake.  But cars like this speak to people’s hearts as much as to their practical sides, and if that’s where you’re at, I’d be hard-pressed to talk you out of it, because it’s hard to find a true and direct competitor for this car.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by Fiat.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.

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