2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Introduction
Unlike its previous partnership with Daimler, there have been plenty of positive signs for the Chrysler Group in just the first two years of its relatonship with Fiat including new or updated products with much-improved interiors across the board and, in most cases, better powertrains. While the Italian automaker has helped inject better styling into Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep products, this mutual relationship also saw the 2012 FIAT 500 go on sale early last year bringing a fun and attractive small car to Chrysler dealerships. As the first of a few confirmed Fiat and Alfa Romeo models making their way back to the United States market, the 2012 Fiat 500 nails the classic styling and small size of the original, but we spent a week in one for this road test and review to see how it fares in the fun-to-drive category.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Pricing and Trim Levels
Assembled in Toluca, Mexico, the 2012 Fiat 500 is available in three trim levels (Pop, Sport and Lounge) with a starting MSRP of $15,500. The model used for this review was the mid-level 500 Sport which starts at $17,500, but after factoring in the options and the $500 destination charge, this model had an as-tested price of $18,750. Compared to other cars in its class, the Fiat 500 is priced very reasonably, but few offer the unique styling or driving dynamic as this Italian hatchback.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Competition
Just a few years ago, the number of micro-cars on sale in the U.S. was relatively small, but the new 2012 Fiat 500 is now positioned in a quickly growing segment going up against the likes of the Smart fortwo, Scion iQ, MINI Cooper and maybe even the Mazda Mazda2. As gasoline prices continue to increase, expect the demand for A-segment cars to increase accordingly which would bode well for Fiat. Although Fiat had expected to sell around 50,000 500s in 2011, it came well short of this mark with only 19,769 Fiat 500 models sold. Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of both Fiat and Chrysler, recently admitted that this target was "incredibly naive," but with the 2012 calendar year being the 500's first full sales year on the market and the addition of the 500 Abarth, we expect Fiat sales to see a decent increase this year.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Exterior
Retro styling has been pretty popular over the last decade, but the 2012 Fiat 500 is one of the best examples of this with a design that borrows heavily from 500 that was produced from 1957 until 1975. These classic design traits include a similar face made up of the offset circular headlights and turn signals to go with the tall, rounded roofline with an abbreviated rear end. Compared to the original Fiat 500, the 2012 model is almost two feet longer, a foot wider and about eight inches taller, but it still does a great job of keeping all the right proportions.
Differentiated from other 500 models, the 500 Sport wears a more aggressive front fascia to accent Fiat's signature "whiskers and logo" treatment. The Fiat 500 Sport also has less chrome, deeper side sills, stylish 16-inch alloy wheels with red-trimmed center caps, red brake calipers, standard fog lights, a rear liftgate spoiler and a sportier rear fascia. Our test vehicle came in a bright Rosso (red) color, but the 2012 Fiat 500 also comes in a wide pallet of colors ranging from vibrant yellow (Giallo), blue (Azurro) and orange (Rame) to more pastel colors like Light Green (Verde Chiaro) or beige (Mocha Latte). Regardless of the color, this car gets plenty of looks when driving around town, and, even better, it's fun to be seen in as well.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Interior
For as little as it is (just 11.5 feet in overall length), the Fiat 500's cabin delivers plenty of interior room. Three 6-foot-tall adults (or four passengers with two children in the rear bench seat) can fit comfortably inside the 500 in a unique 3+1 seating configuration that delivers more space than a Scion iQ and more seats than the ForTwo. In addition to its seating capacity, the rest of the 500's cabin has a simplistic layout especially when compared to the MINI Cooper, but it might take a while to learn the placement most buttons, controls and levers. Even after a week in the car, we were still reaching for the door panel to lower the windows (window switches are on the center stack) or the outboard side of the seat to recline the seatback (recline lever is on the inside edge of the front seat backs) or trying to remember how to lock and unlock the doors (push door handles in to lock, pull out to unlock).
The Fiat 500 Sport is only offered with a grey and black interior color scheme (other 500 models can be equipped with red, brown or ivory interior color combinations), but all cars get an instrument panel insert painted to match the car's exterior color. The Sport also includes sport cloth bucket seats and an exclusive steering wheel wrapped in a dark perforated leather. Standard equipment include a seven-speaker premium Bose audio system and the Microsoft-developed Blue&Me hands-free system which delivers Bluetooth phone connectivity, easy pairing of mobile devices through a USB port and the operation of a unique eco:Drive application.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Interior Packages and Options
In Sport trim, the 2012 Fiat 500 doesn't really offer too many options, but one of the most innovative is the $400 TomTom navigation system. Instead of an in-dash system, the Fiat 500 offers this low-cost removable unit that fully integrates into the car and is easy to put out of the way when not in use. This car was also equipped with the $350 Safety and Sound Package which adds in Sirius Satellite Radio and a security alarm.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
All 2012 Fiat 500 models are currently powered by 1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four that puts out 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, and while that may not sound like a lot of power, the 500 still feels pretty peppy thanks to a curb weight of just 2,363 pounds. Those looking for a little more power should be sure to wait for the all-new 500 Abarth. This test car had the standard manual transmission which features a throw that was easy to shift but should still appease those looking for a little more enthusiasm from their driving experience. In this setup, the 500 Sport is rated with EPA fuel economy estimates of 30 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and a combined rating of 33 mpg. Buyers who opt for the 500's six-speed automatic transmission will be penalized with decreased fuel economy to the tune of 27 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Driving Impressions
The 2012 Fiat 500 is already a fun car to drive, but the Sport trim level adds a sportier suspension tuning to go with its more aggressive styling. Although subcompact and micro cars are generally designed with city commuting in mind, the new FIAT 500 is a surprisingly responsive car when the driver's pushing it hard but it also has no problem hitting its EPA fuel economy numbers when driven a little easier. In standard form, the 500 Sport comes with a five-speed manual transmission that is both fun and easy to use. Those looking for a little more fun from their 500 will definitely want to stick with the base 500 Sport's five-speed manual transmission which helps make the car feel ever so sportier with a smooth clutch and relatively quick acceleration, and the low curb weight and short wheelbase make it very agile and responsive. While the electric power steering isn't as sporty as a Mazda, the Fiat 500 never felt heavy at low speeds or twitchy at higher speeds. Speaking of higher speeds, the base 500 is already a pretty bouncy car thanks to its short wheel base (just 17 inches bigger than the car's overall width) especially while driving over interstate expansion joints, but the 500 Sport's tighter suspension makes this a little more obvious although the car is far from uncomfortable to drive.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Safety
The 2012 Fiat 500 has received mixed crash-test ratings so far with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) naming it a 2012 IIHS Top Safety Pick for getting top ratings in all crash tests, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave it a three-star overall safety rating as a result of its four-star frontal and rollover ratings and its two-star side-impact rating. All 2012 Fiat 500 models come with plenty of standard safety features that include seven airbags, active front head restraints, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, electronic stability control, traction control and tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Final Thoughts
It has still yet to be seen whether the Fiat 500 can be the mass-market small car that Chrysler so badly needs in the U.S. or if it's just a highly visible niche vehicle, but regardless, Chrysler dealers are finally getting a small car that is more fun to drive (and be seen in) than a Fortwo and more affordable than a MINI. If anything, one of the biggest things holding the 500 back so far is that the dealer network is still growing, but as the model line-up continues to expand and rising gasoline prices drives consumer downsizing, Fiat and Chrysler have put themselves in a profitable position. While the Fiat 500 may not be the perfect answer for everyone, it is definitely great car whether you're a first-time driver or just looking for an exciting and fun-to-drive small car.
2012 Fiat 500 Sport Review: Pros and Cons
- cute and classic Fiat styling
- lots of fun to drive
- excellent fuel economy
- bumpy ride
- limited dealer network
- quirky placement of most buttons, controls and levers
Fiat provided the vehicle for this review
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross