The NMA Foundation presents Eric Peter’s Car Review, a weekly Saturday feature on the NMA blog.
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The market for really small cars like the Fiat 500 has never been really big in this country — land of (usually) inexpensive gas and super-sized SUVs.
And BMW’s Mini got there first.
No one else offered anything as cute — and as small — as the Cooper hatchback. It had the market to itself, pretty much.
Then along came Fiat and the 500. Just as cute — arguably — and even smaller — inarguably.
But it didn’t sell as well.
Probably because Fiat itself was new just five years ago. Big in Europe — nonexistent here. Well, since the late ‘70s, at least. Fiat left the U.S. market when the U.S. car market was at one of its lowest ebbs, in terms of quality control and many other things. All cars were not-so-great back then, Fiat’s included.
But Fiat didn’t have the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s to rehab its image with American car buyers, so when the company finally did return to America in 2012, Americans were leery.
But it’s not 1979 — and after five years on the market, Americans are warming up to Fiat. Or at least, to the 500 — which is now outselling the Mini Cooper hatchback by about 200 cars a month, nationally. Yes, really.
See here if you don’t believe me.
There are sound reasons for this — and you might be interested in knowing what they are if you’re considering either of these two micro cars.
WHAT IT IS
Like the Mini Cooper hatchback coupe, the Fiat 500 is a modernized reincarnation of an iconic ‘60s-era micro-car.
Only more so.
It is much smaller than the already very mini Mini Cooper hatchback. And yet, it manages to have a roomier backseat — and more room for stuff behind its back seat — than the extremely mini Mini.
It also has a much lower price tag: $14,995 for the base Pop trim with manual transmission vs. $21,600 for the least expensive version of the Mini Cooper hatchback, which stickers for $21,600 to start and tops out at $31,800 for the high-performance John Cooper Works (JCW) iteration.
Over at Fiat, you can get the 500 Abarth — which like the JCW Mini has a punchy turbocharged engine and an array of suspension/brake/trim upgrades — for $19,995.
Less than Mini wants for the base trim version of its micro-car.
And now you know why the Fiat is catching up to the Mini when it comes to sales.
All trims — including the base Pop trim — now come standard with an upgraded, six-speaker Alpine audio system at no additional charge.
Unfortunately, the higher-powered turbo engine that was previously available as an optional upgrade in all trims is now exclusively available in the high-performance Abarth trim.
Cute, fun — and inexpensive. Some other cars are two of those things; only one is all three.
Fits places SUVs — and most cars — don’t.
You’ll be surprised how much fits inside.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Gas mileage is good — but less than you’d expect given how small (and small-engined) this car is.
If you want the additional performance dollop that the turbo engine offers, you have to buy the Abarth — which isn’t expensive but is loud. It has a straight pipe exhaust that will make neighbors think you bought a Harley chopper. The previously available non-Abarth turbo got you the more powerful engine but not the Hell’s Angels exhaust.
UNDER THE HOOD
All 500s — except the high-performance Abarth — come standard with Fiat’s 1.4 liter “MultiAir” four cylinder engine, paired up with either a five-speed manual transmission (standard) or a six-speed automatic (optional).
The engine isn’t a powerhouse — 101 hp and 98 ft.-lbs. of torque — but the 500 isn’t heavy. It only weighs about 2,434 pounds — which for perspective is about 300 pounds lighter than a current compact-sized car like the Honda Civic (2,739 lbs.). The 500 is also about 200 pounds lighter than the Mini two-door hatchback (2,608 lbs.).
It’s still not as quick as the Mini — which gets to 60 in about 7.4 seconds vs. mid-high nines for the Fiat — but it’s not slow, either. And if you feel the need for more speed, go for the Abarth — which is powered by a turbocharged version of the 1.4 liter engine that makes 160 hp and 170 ft.-lbs. of torque at just 2,500 RPM.
The Abarth 500 gets to 60 in just over 7 seconds — more than two seconds quicker than the standard model and quicker than the still-costs-more-Mini.
The Mini S (and JCW Mini) are quicker still, but their asking prices ($25,200 for the S; $31,800 for the JCW) effectively put them in another class — and into competition with more expensive sport hatches like the VW Golf GTI.
One category where the Fiat comes up short vs. the Mini is MPGs.
The base model with the non-turbo 1.4 liter engine rates 27 city, 33 highway — vs. 28 city, 38 highway for the base Mini with its standard 1.5 liter (and turbocharged) three cylinder engine. Given that the Mini is bigger and heavier — and has a stronger engine (134 hp and 162 ft.-lbs. of torque) you’d think its mileage would be lower rather than higher.
And given how small and light the 500 is, it’s surprising it doesn’t rate 40 — or higher — on the highway. Several much larger and heavier cars (like the Mazda3, for example) do.
The 500’s less-than-exceptional gas mileage may be due to its less-than-aerodynamically excellent profile. It stands several inches taller than the Mini — 59.8 inches vs. 55.7 inches. Which makes it harder to evade wind resistance, especially on the highway.
Note that the 500’s city mileage is about the same as the Mini’s.
But, the Mini costs more up front — and may well cost you more down the road, too. Its engines are all turbocharged and intercooled — including the base 1.5 liter engine. More parts, more stress — more things that could go wrong.
All 500s except the Abarth don’t have turbos. So, no chance you’ll be spending a couple thousand bucks seven or eight years from now for a new turbo.
And the $6,605 you saved up front — the price difference between the base trim 500 Pop ($14,995) and the base trim Mini ($21,600) more than makes up for the Mini’s 5 MPG fuel economy advantage on the highway. That sum buys about 2,600 gallons of gas at today’s — roughly — $2.50 per gallon.
And 2,600 gallons of gas will take you — roughly — 80,000 miles. Which is the mileage the Mini would have to spot the Fiat before its slight fuel efficiency advantage would begin saving its owner any money.
ON THE ROAD
There is a wise old saying that it is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
Not that the 500 is slow. A Prius C hybrid is slow (pushing 12 seconds to get to 60). But relative to the current par — which is about 8 seconds to 60 for most compact economy cars — the 500 is a bit under. If the other cars around it are driven to the full extent of their capabilities.
Which gives the 500 the advantage — because of its tiny footprint — and its disarmingly cute persona. Other drivers are either too distracted to notice you’re about to bust a move or they don’t expect you to. And — just like that — you’re past them or through them or around them.
This is a car that can exploit almost any hole in traffic that would oblige a motorcycle. And that goes curbside, too. The 500 is only 139.6 inches long. To give you some sense of that, a Honda Civic coupe is 176.9 inches long overall — a difference in length of 37.3 inches or more than three feet. Imagine what that means in terms of slotting into a parking spot — or threading the needle out on the road.
Go with the manual, though.
Because with it, you can make full use of what you’ve got to work with. Push the button on the dash for Sport mode — this dials up the sharpest throttle response — and get ready for the light to go green. Bring up the revs, feather the clutch and then hammer the thing. You’ll be surprised how quickly traffic fades in the rearview — their superior horsepower numbers notwithstanding. They are like bodybuilders who flex and pose — and don’t do much with those muscles.
The automatic version doesn’t lose any of its urban mobility advantage, but it is a bit mopey getting going. Small engines without much torque (98 ft.-lbs., remember — and not until 4,000 RPM) paired up with automatics suffer from acceleration ED. This can be cured by the little blue pill of turbocharging — which (in the Abarth) almost doubles the torque (to 170 ft.-lbs.) and brings the torque peak down to just 2,500 RPMs.
This version of the 500 works just fine with the automatic.
However, it’s harder to run under the radar because of the pipes on this thing. Which are like the pipes on a ’69 Z28 Camaro or a Harley Chopper — both of which have pipes, all right — and no mufflers. This is good for performance and — when you’re in the mood — good for your mood. But sometimes, discretion is wanted. First thing in the morning, for instance. Or when you are trying to get the Drop on that Camry in the lane next to you. The Abarth’s sound cannons make that tough.
Last year, you could get the Abarth’s turbo engine in the less aurally obstreperous non-Abarth 500. It was quick — and quiet — and it worked really well with the optional automatic, too.
Apparently, not enough people bought it this way, though — which is why Fiat decided to drop it.
Oddly — because it’s so much smaller (and shorter overall) than the Mini — the 500 has a wider turning circle: about 37 feet vs. 35.4 for the Mini hatchback.
However, this ends up being a wash in real-world driving (like the mileage disparity) because the 500 is so much smaller. There is about a foot less car to deal with (139.6 inches vs. 151.9 for the Mini) and that makes the Fiat feel more lithe in tight situations, such as shoe-horning into a curbside spot that would otherwise be for motorcycles-only.
Particularly helpful is that there is almost no car ahead of the front windshield. Even compared with the Mini — which also doesn’t have much of a schnozz relative to most other cars — the 500’s view forward is exceptional and that makes negotiating even the tightest spots in this thing golf-cart easy.
AT THE CURB
Like the Mini — and unlike so many other new cars — the 500 is a happy little car. It makes people smile. Even more so when they find out how affordable it is.
But they really warm up when you show them how roomy it is. In particular, the back seats — which have almost 32 inches of legroom — and to put that in perspective, a new Camaro has about 26 inches — and the Camaro is twice as large (just about) as the 500.
A full-sized adult can sit in the 500’s back seat — with the driver and front passenger seats not scrunched far forward to accommodate them. It’s not super comfortable in the 500’s back seats, but the point is they are viable for adults. The Camaro’s (and the Ford Mustang’s) are not. In those cars, the backs of the front seats literally touch the seat cushions of the rear seats, unless the front seats are scrunched forward such that a normal sized adult can’t drive the car.
Also of interest, the 500 has more backseat room than the larger overall Mini — which has 30.8 inches. And the 500 has more cargo space behind the back seats: 9.5 cubic feet vs. 8.7 for the Mini. The Mini has a bit more overall cargo space — with the second row down, you have 34 cubic feet vs. 30.2 for the Fiat with its second row down — but the overall fact remains:
The Fiat is more space-efficient than the Mini.
Word is getting out about this.
Also about what a deal this thing is. The base Pop trim comes with all power options, including cruise control, a configurable LCD/digital instrument cluster, a 5-inch secondary touchscreen and a very good six speaker Alpine sound system. That’s for just under $15k — sticker.
The Lounge adds heated seats, a panorama sunroof, climate control AC and numerous trim upgrades — for just over $18k.
That’s still thousands away from the base price of the least expensive Mini.
Go for the top-of-the-line Abarth — with the turbo engine, a bevy of suspension and brake enhancements (including powder-coated calipers), upgrade wheel/tire package, leather trim, the optional Beats premium audio rig with trunk-mounted subwoofer, nav — and a peel-it-back back targa top — and you might pay about the same as you would . . . for a base trim Mini hatchback.
Also: The 500 — which dates back to 2012 — lacks some of the crap that is making most new cars over-TechEd, over-expensive and aggravating. It has a physical ignition key, for instance. This will last forever — and if not, it’s cheap to get a new one. That goes for the lock cylinder, too. As opposed to the not-cheap electronic key fob and push-button ignition most 2017 cars have.
No automatic stop/start. No eight (or nine or ten) speed transmission. No lane departure annoyance.
As the guy in Falling Down said, think about it.
Fiat’s biggest issue isn’t the car — it’s PR. People’s view of Fiat — the company — is still colored by memories of the ’70s. The goodness — and incredible value of the car — is pushing through all that, but there is still a lot of work to be done getting the word out.
Fiat could steal a page out of Hyundai’s playbook to reassure buyers by offering a bulletproof warranty, which amounts to the same thing as a bulletproof car.
Hyundai swayed lots of doubters with its ten-year/100,000 mile drivetrain warranty.
Fiat should give thought to offering the same.
It’d put worries about the ’70s to rest.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sometimes, the best things going are hidden right before your eyes.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos