By now, everyone knows the FIAT 500 as a small car that is primarily remembered for its unique looks and risqué television ads. The 2015 FIAT 500 offers a lot more than that, touting fuel-efficient powertrains, a modern interior, and in Turbo or Abarth guise, surprisingly impressive performance. Originally available only as a hatchback and offered solely with its small 1.6-liter engine, the 500's lineup has grown to include performance versions, an electric model (the 500e) and even a convertible -- each designed to enhance the car's appeal. The new models seem to have worked; the 500 is more popular than ever, and updates for 2015 will likely enhance the small car's appeal even further.
What's New for 2015?
The 500 offers major changes for 2015. The biggest update is a pair of new automatic transmissions, which are available in the 500 Abarth and 500 Turbo for the first time. The 500 also offers a few new features, including a 7-inch thin-film-transistor gauge cluster, Bluetooth audio streaming and an enhanced rear park-assist feature.
What We Like
Good fuel economy; fun styling inside and out; available quasi-convertible roof; zesty available turbocharged power; automatic now offered for Abarth and Turbo buyers
What We Don't
Limited rear headroom; steering wheel doesn't telescope; base engine lacks punch; base model is less fun to drive than it looks
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 in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. 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. Now offered with manual or automatic transmissions, it boasts 28 mpg city/34 mpg hwy in manual guise or 24 mpg city/32 mpg hwy with the newly available automatic.
Finally, the 500 Abarth uses an even more powerful 160-hp version of the same engine. It shares the Turbo's fuel economy ratings of 28 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with the manual or 24 mpg city/32 mpg hwy with the new automatic.
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 ($17,200 hatchback; $21,000 convertible) is the base model. It offers 15-in 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 ($18,500), which is offered only as a hatchback. It adds 16-in alloy wheels and sporty items such as firmer seats, a revised suspension, fog lights, a thicker steering wheel and an Alpine audio system.
FIAT's next trim is the 500 Lounge ($19,500 hatchback; $23,500 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 ($20,500), which comes in hatchback guise only. It keeps all the sporty features from the Sport but adds 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 ($23,200 hatchback; $27,200 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.
The 2015 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 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 for Highway Safety, the 500 earned Good ratings in four of the agency's five tests and a Poor rating in the final test. That last test, the small-overlap assessment, has caused trouble for many of today's smaller cars.
Behind the Wheel
The base-level 500 may look like a barrel of laughs, but it drives mostly like the tall economy car that it is. A car as tiny as the 500 is bound to feel nimble, of course, and this FIAT likes tight spaces, darting through the concrete jungle with sure-footed poise. Get it out on a real road with real curves, though, 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. Finally offered with an automatic to give them mass appeal, these models boast excellent midrange power and quickly dial things up in fun and enjoyment. The Abarth is especially 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 distinct 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 design. 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. 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. It's a worthy FIAT rival for drivers who can stretch their budgets.
We're not enamored with the Abarth's exhaust, but we love the turbocharged motor; it makes the 500 much 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 boasts just about everything you may need thanks to Bluetooth, an iPod hookup and power accessories.