When we contemplate the 2014 FIAT 500, the phrase "boundless ambition" comes to mind. It started at the 500's press launch in late 2010, when 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 fourth year of stateside availability, the 500 is making good on FIAT's early optimism. Sales are strong, and the 500 lineup continues to grow. The regular 500 hatchback remains, of course, but it's now flanked by both the soft-top 500c and the turbocharged Abarth. There's also a larger model dubbed the 500L for shoppers who need more room. Only MINI can match FIAT's range of offerings in this class, and like we said, the Cooper costs much more. 

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

What's New for 2014?

The 500 sees only minor changes for 2014, including a new interior color, improved headroom for the front passenger and a new front-seat armrest that's standard on all trims except the base-level 500 POP. 

What We Like 

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

What We Don't 

Limited rear headroom; steering wheel doesn't telescope; base engine lacks punch; less fun to drive than it looks 

How Much? 

$16,700-$26,500 

Fuel Economy

The 500 offers three engines. Base-level models use a 101-horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder. With the standard 5-speed manual, it returns 31 miles per gallon city/40 mpg hwy. The optional 6-speed automatic drops those figures to 27 mpg city/34 mpg hwy.

Next up is the 500 Turbo, which uses a turbocharged version of the base model's engine that's tuned to 135 hp. Only offered with a 5-speed manual, that model returns 28 mpg city/34 mpg hwy. Finally, the 500 Abarth uses an even more powerful 160-hp version of the same engine. It also returns 28 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with the mandatory 5-speed manual. 

Standard Features & Options

The FIAT 500 is offered with two body styles (a hatchback and a convertible called the 500c), five trim levels and three engines. That may sound complicated, but it's not as bad as it seems. 

The 500 POP ($16,700 hatchback; $20,200 convertible) is the base model. It offers 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, power accessories such as locks, windows and mirrors, cruise control, split-folding rear seats, a trip computer, Bluetooth, auxiliary audio input and an iPod hookup. 

Next up is the 500 Sport ($18,200), which is offered only as a hatchback. It adds 16-in alloy wheels and sporty items such as firmer seats, revised suspension, fog lights, a thicker steering wheel and an Alpine audio system. 

FIAT's next trim is the 500 Lounge ($19,200 hatchback; $23,200 convertible), which again comes as a hatchback or a convertible. It drops many of the Sport's performance-oriented upgrades for high-end touches such as automatic climate control, smaller alloy wheels for an improved ride, a glass roof and satellite radio. Convertible models also include a power top and park assist. 

Beyond the Lounge is the 500 Turbo ($20,200), which again comes in hatchback guise only. It keeps all the sporty features from the Sport, but adds a mandatory 5-speed manual transmission and a 135-hp turbocharged version of the base-level 500's engine. It also includes larger brakes, a roof spoiler and a leather-wrapped shifter.

Topping the range is the high-performance 500 Abarth ($22,900 hatchback; $26,500 convertible). It also uses a turbocharged version of the base-level 500's engine, but power is boosted from 135 hp to 160 hp. Other features include unique interior and exterior styling and available 17-in wheels.

The 500 offers many options. There's a Beats Premium Audio Package with an upgraded sound system, a Comfort and Convenience Package that adds heated seats and satellite radio to the Sport and Turbo and a Luxury Leather Package on Lounge models that includes parking sensors, leather upholstery, heated front seats and auto-dimming mirrors. 

Safety 

The 2014 FIAT 500 comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and seven airbags (front, front side, driver knee and full-length side curtain). 

In government crash testing, the 500 received four overall stars out of five -- a rating that consists of four stars in frontal crash and rollover tests, and five stars in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's side-impact assessment. In crash tests by the nonprofit Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, the 500 earned Good ratings in all four of the agency's tests. 

Behind the Wheel

The 500 may look like 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 sure-footed 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. 

Things change, however, when you're talking about the 500 Turbo or the Abarth. Though hampered by their mandatory stick shift (surely some drivers would love to see an automatic), these models boast excellent mid-range power and quickly dial things up in fun and enjoyment. The Abarth, especially, is a hoot to drive just about anywhere, though its optional 17-in alloy wheels are punishing on harsh road surfaces.

We should add that the 500c's power-retracting convertible top is 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 always have metal around you, even when the top is all the way down. The top includes three discrete positions and a glass rear window. 

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Rio -- Kia's smallest subcompact is a sensible choice that happens to look great in its new duds. It's not as cute as the 500, but it's more practical.

MINI Cooper -- The MINI is still the standard in this class for driver engagement, and its technology offerings are improving -- especially in the recently released 2014 model. 

Volkswagen Beetle -- The latest Beetle isn't "mini," but it is an intriguing mix of German engineering and adventurous styling. A worthy FIAT rival for drivers who can stretch their budgets. 

AutoTrader's Advice

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. If you don't want all the power, consider a base-level 500 POP -- it's an excellent deal and it boasts just about everything you may need thanks to Bluetooth, an iPod hookup and power accessories.

Find a FIAT 500 for sale

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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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