Pros: Good fuel economy with manual transmission, fun styling inside and out, available quasi-convertible roof, zesty turbocharged power in Abarth trim.

Cons: Limited rear headroom, steering wheel doesn't telescope, base engine lacks punch, less fun to drive than it looks, spotty crash-test scores.

Introduction

When we contemplate the 2012 FIAT 500, the phrase "boundless ambition" comes to mind. It started at the 500's press launch back in late 2010, where FIAT had the gall to provide a manual-shift Mini Cooper for comparison drives. You can imagine which car won that battle, but we admired that FIAT wasn't backing down from its pricier, more sophisticated rival. Then FIAT announced that the 500 would sell 50,000 copies in its first year on the market. You can probably figure out what happened there, too, but again, we were impressed that FIAT dared to dream.

Now in its second year of stateside availability, the 500 has begun to make good on Fiat's early optimism. Sales are surging, and the 500 lineup has swelled to three distinct models. The regular 500 hatchback remains, of course, but it's now flanked by both the soft-top 500c and the turbocharged Abarth hatchback. Only Mini can match Fiat's range of offerings in this class, and like we said, the Cooper costs considerably more.

As endearing as the 500 is in many ways, it's definitely got its share of flaws. But if you want a fun little economy car that even JLo wouldn't mind being seen in, the ambitious 2012 FIAT 500 is the best deal going.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 FIAT 500 comes as either a two-door hatchback or a soft-top convertible (500c) in four trim levels: Pop, hatchback-only Sport, Lounge and hatchback-only Abarth.

Standard features on the entry-level Pop include 15-inch steel wheels, power accessories, a tilt-only leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver's seat, Bluetooth connectivity and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input and a USB port with iPod integration.

The Sport hatchback adds 16-inch alloy wheels with all-season performance tires, a sport-tuned suspension, red-painted brake calipers, fog lights, a rear spoiler, a blind-spot "spotter" insert on the driver's exterior mirror, a sport steering wheel, sportier cloth upholstery and a Bose audio system with a subwoofer.

The Lounge downsizes to 15-inch alloy wheels and ditches the Sport's performance-oriented upgrades, but it keeps the Bose stereo and adds a fixed glass roof for the hatchback, extra chrome exterior accents, premium cloth upholstery and automatic climate control.

The Abarth hatchback shares much of the Sport's equipment roster but adds racy accoutrements like a turbocharged engine, a slightly firmer suspension with Koni front shocks, numerically quicker steering, a distinctive (read: loud) performance exhaust and optional 17-inch wheels in multiple styles.

Some of the higher trims' equipment can be optionally added to lower trims. The Pop and Sport hatchbacks are eligible for an optional sunroof, while the Lounge can be outfitted with exclusive leather upholstery. Other options, depending on trim, include heated seats and a Tom Tom portable navigation system that installs atop the dashboard.

The 500's driving position is marred by a steering wheel that doesn't telescope, forcing lanky drivers to sit with legs akimbo and locked arms. Another issue is the shift-lever housing, which juts out from the dash and limits knee-room. That's a shame, because the pedals are well-placed, and visibility is pretty good except over the driver's left shoulder (where it's basically nonexistent). If you want the optional sunroof, make sure you try out the headroom first. We've noticed that the sunroof takes a significant toll in that regard.

The 500 won't win any awards for its ergonomics. The base front seats lack meaningful contours, while even the Abarth's supposedly sporty chairs don't have much lateral support. The 500's odd concentric gauges can be hard to read at a glance, and the center-stack controls have too many buttons that look the same-especially when automatic climate control is specified. But you can do all sorts of fun stuff with interior color combinations, so all's not lost. FIAT has taken a page out of Mini's book in offering numerous "personalization" options for the 500, and this should only help the 500 stand apart from its one-size-fits-all economy-car peers.

The 500's back seat actually has decent leg room considering how tiny the car is, but headroom is sorely lacking. The Mini Cooper, of course, has the opposite problem: fine headroom but no legroom. Hatchback cargo space measures 9.5 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 30.2 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded, while the 500c drops to 5.4 and 23.4 cubic feet, respectively.

We should add that the 500c's power-retracting convertible top is rather unconventional. Instead of constituting the entire roof, the 500c's soft-top fills the open middle section between conventional side-pillars. It's more of a targa-style roof-you've always got metal around you, even when the top is all the way down. The top includes three discrete positions and a glass rear window.

Technology

Two thumbs up to FIAT for making Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity standard, even on the inexpensive Pop model. We're also impressed that Bose audio is offered in this little economy car. You can't expect much more at such a modest price. We do take issue with the Tom Tom navigation system, though, since it's basically the same one you can buy for far cheaper at your local big-box store. Best to leave that one on the shelf.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive FIAT 500 features a naturally aspirated 1.4-liter inline-4 in Pop, Sport and Lounge trims. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on Pop and Sport, while a six-speed automatic is optional on those models and standard on Lounge. Rated at just 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, the little 4-cylinder is short on motivation, even by economy-car standards. It's pleasantly refined, but it rarely feels peppy. The payoff comes at the pump, at least if you get the manual transmission, which returns 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway. The automatic, however, dips to an unimpressive 27/34 mpg in the hatchback and just 27/32 mpg in the 500c.

As for the Abarth hatchback, it comes with a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 rated at 160 horsepower and up to 170 lb-ft of torque (but only 150 lb-ft if you forget to press the "SPORT" button on the dashboard). A five-speed manual is the only transmission. The turbo treatment decisively rectifies the regular 500's power deficit. Acceleration is genuinely spirited, and there's not much turbo lag-the Abarth gets its legs around 2,000 rpm and doesn't let up till about 500 rpm shy of redline. Throttle response is superb, especially by turbo standards. Fuel economy is similarly impressive at 28/34 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 FIAT 500 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and seven airbags (front, front side, driver knee and full-length side-curtain).

In government crash-testing, the 500 received just three stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts and a dismal two stars for side impacts, which improved to three stars in a later test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 500 higher marks, but it's complicated. While 2012 500 models manufactured after July 2011 get the top score of "Good" in all categories, those manufactured before August 2011 were deemed "Marginal" (the second-worst score) in frontal-offset impacts"".

Driving Impressions

The 500 may look like it'd be a barrel of laughs, but it drives mostly like the tall economy car it is. A car as tiny as the 500 is bound to feel nimble, of course, and sure enough, this FIAT likes tight spaces, darting through the concrete jungle with surefooted poise. Get it out on a real road, though, with real curves, and what you notice is the 500's high center of gravity and leaden steering. The Sport and Abarth models are more confident in corners than the others, but let's put it this way: the Mini Cooper isn't going to lose any sleep over the 500. We do like the unruffled highway ride, especially when it's not marred by the constant drone of the Abarth's exhaust.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Rio - Recently redesigned, the Rio is a sensible choice that happens to look great in its new duds.

Mini Cooper Hardtop/Convertible - The Mini is still the standard in this class for driver engagement, and its technology offerings are improving.

Volkswagen Beetle - The redesigned Beetle isn't "mini," but it is an intriguing mix of German engineering and adventurous styling. A worthy FIAT rival.

AutoTrader Recommends

We're not enamored of the Abarth's exhaust, but we love the turbocharged motor, as it makes the 500 infinitely more interesting to drive. We'd take our Abarth in red with the white-painted alloy wheels.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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