2010s / Fiat / In our garage / Italian / Personal car / Road test

In our garage: Fiat 500 Turbo

rwp_fiat500t_4Italian cars are noted for stirring up emotions. An exotic like a Ferrari or Lamborghini howling down a boulevard can cause passers by to pull out their iPhones like old west gunslingers to snap a photo. A classic Alfa Romeo spider or new 4C parked on the street can easily gather a little crowd too. To many, the old Fiat 500 remains as much of a symbol of Italy as the Colosseum or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Here in the states though, the name Fiat still reminds some people of the phrase “Fix It Again Tony” or maybe their annoying neighbor in the ‘80s who loved his Bondo-laden X1/9 but was always asking for a jump start or a ride to work. It’s generally accepted that machines of Mediterranean descent are temperamental, a challenge to live with, but fun when not emptying bank accounts. Naturally then, I’ve gone and traded my Honda for a Fiat. Yes, that’s correct. More precisely, a 2014* Fiat 500 Turbo.

Regular readers will have likely gathered though that here at RWP we love small, old, rusty, Italian cars that may spend more time parked than running. Granted, my new Fiat is not old, rusty, or even assembled in Italy for that matter (Mexico, in this case). Instead, this car has a reasonable amount of Italian charisma with modern build quality and refinement. It makes a short trip to the grocery store a little less mundane, and it seems its very existence (or baby-bunny-like “cuteness”) piques curiosity of the general public. Being a Fiat owner means you may need to build a little more time into your excursions to answer a few questions in a parking lot.

Drivetrain & Performance

Most of the American automotive press will ultimately say all the same things about Fiat 500s. The normally-aspirated 500 Pop, Lounge, and Sport are all “cute and fun” but “underpowered and tiny” while the Abarth is generally praised for being mildly insane but endlessly entertaining. The Fiat 500 Turbo remains largely unrecognized or somewhat damned with faint praise. It’s “just not an Abarth,” they say. This is actually precisely what I like about the Turbo.

The 500 T is indeed down on power from the North American specification Abarth, but exactly the same as the European spec scorpion model. The Mexican-assembled Abarth 500s sold on the left side of the Atlantic produces 160hp and 150 ft/lbs of torque, whereas the Polish-made European Abarth and the North American Turbo both make the same torque but only 135 horsepower. Turbos and Abarths share the same 1.4 liter boosted MultiAir powerplant, with the most significant variance in horsepower largely having to do with different Magnetti Marelli ECUs. If you’ve ever owned an older Italian car, I’ll mention here that the car does start every day, even in rain, and hasn’t yet threatened to burn itself to the ground.

The perceived power from the Fiat’s engine is greater than the numbers would suggest. The car’s light weight no doubt helps, but also a smooth delivery of low-end torque with little discernible turbo lag. Passing maneuvers on a two-lane road rarely require anything more than a drop to 4th gear. Mash the throttle above 55 mph or so, wait a couple seconds for boost to build, and fifth gear is quite adequate. There is a delightful note from the exhaust under power as you sweep around an oblivious Prius from Massachusetts.

The 1.4 Multiair is a bit of a technological marvel. It is a single overhead cam engine, though the intake valves are controlled hydraulically. It’s a lot to explain, but in a nutshell, using electronically controlled oil pressure rather than a mechanical link allows the valves to have infinitely variable lift and duration without the need for a throttle body. Greater power and efficiency results, which, combined with twin intercoolers and a Garrett/Honeywell turbocharger, makes for an engine that is frugal with fuel but not power. The block is cast iron and fairly low-tech. It dates back to 1985 when Fiat introduced their somewhat humorously named “F.I.R.E.” line of engines (Fully Integrated Robotized Engine) but it is a tried and true unit.

The gearbox is a five-speed Fiat Powertrain Technologies C510 unit, assembled in Italy. The shift lever is nicely weighted and changes are slick. Linkage does feel a little on the rubbery side, or rather more precisely, “cable-y” as this is the method used. The clutch is light with a good amount of travel that is neither too long nor too short. The only real complaint overall with the gearbox is an occasional reluctance to fully engage in reverse. (Though if, for example, you’re like myself and familiar with driving old Saab 900s, you won’t be phased by this trait.)

Since “driving modes” are so en vogue these days, there is, of course, a “sport” button on the dashboard. This makes the throttle more responsive while also tightening up the electric power steering. Sport mode might just as well be left on constantly, if it could be. It’s not a radical enough change to make you want to turn it off for any reason, yet it must be turned back on every time the car is restarted.

Some reviewers have claimed that fuel economy is actually better with sport mode on, yet this could be due to a driver’s tendency to be less aggressive with throttle input when response improved. In the last 4,000 miles, my Fiat’s trip computer has reported an average of 33 miles per gallon. This is a combination of daily short commutes to work and about 3,000 miles on the highway. On sustained 65-75 mph trips, it can return 34 miles per gallon or more.

Handling & Road Manners

By design, the 500 is superlative for driving around cramped urban spaces. Tight turns, u-turns, parallel parking, and maneuvering around the right of left-turning vehicles are where this car is really in its element. Out of town on back roads, and with sport mode engaged, it’s still a delight. The tall body and upright seating position isn’t entirely sporty, but you quickly become used to it and learn to accept a certain feeling of body roll without being alarmed. The short wheelbase is both a help and hinderance here. It certainly contributes to the overall nimble feeling of the car, but the car is somewhat easily upset by bumps and potholes. If absolutely necessary, Electronic Skid Control will intervene.
At the time of writing, I have not yet driven the Fiat in snow. I remain cautiously optimistic and it won’t be long now before my home in New England is dumped upon so that I may find out for sure. For what it’s worth though, I have seen 500s driving about as normally as anything else in winter conditions. The Turbo is equipped with all-season Pirelli Cinturatos, and my hope is that they will be adequate enough.

Interior and Comfort

Perhaps most striking about the interior of the Fiat 500 is the level of comfort provided by a fairly inexpensive city car. In the front, there is a spaciousness that belies the car’s outside dimensions and the Turbo’s leather seats are excellent. A very nice place to park one’s buttocks for even an extended length of time. They are not rock solid like many German cars, yet they feel supportive in all the right places. Side bolstering is just enough and not overdone like so many newer cars.

If you must spend time in the rear seats, it’s best to make it a short time. Four people will fit in the car, but it’s easier if they’re very small people. Children perhaps. Headroom does exist, and legroom does also if you slide the front seats forward. The rear headrests must also be raised or else they land squarely in between shoulders, though this does keep them out of the rear view mirror when unused.

Luggage capacity is not especially large with the rear seats in their upright position, but then we must again realize just how compact this car is. Although with the access allowed by a hatch, and the rear seat backs folded down, an amazing amount of luggage can be stowed away for such a small vehicle.

Ergonomics are very good in general, with controls being logical and falling easily at hand. But, there is one trait that cannot be overlooked. By ignoring the obvious need for a telescopic steering column, Fiat has managed to retain the classic arms-out, legs-in driving position that has been a chronic and baffling aspect of so many cars from Italy throughout most of recorded history. Seat adjustment can make up for most of this, but you cant help but wish the wheel could extend towards you a little more.

Fit and finish is quite nice in most areas, though a few places show obvious cost-cutting measures. The door panels are a large expanse of textured plastic that leave a little to be desired, and the plastic surrounding the (non adjustable… ahem) steering column is particularly cheap with some rough moulding edges. Otherwise, the color-matched dashboard facia is well done, the styling is cohesive, the seats are well upholstered, and nothing feels as if you have to “be careful” with it. The leather wrapped three-spoke steering wheel integrates stereo controls, Bluetooth phone controls, and cruise control buttons without feeling like too thick and massive.

The exhaust note does permeate the cabin noticeably under load, but in a pleasant way. Most of the time, it’s surprisingly quiet and docile inside, even at brisk cruising speeds. Road and wind noise are kept well in check and not excessive, contrary to some reviews. It’s important to remember that this is, after all, a Fiat supermini and not a Mercedes S-Class.

Styling

Without the graphics, larger wheels, and lower ride-height, the 500 T is more understated than the Abarth – if any 500 can be described as such. It is more aggressive and sporty looking than the normally aspirated models though, sharing the Abarth’s front facia, rocker panel cladding, and rear bumper (but with single-tip exhaust valance). The dark silver wheels add a nice upmarket touch without being overdone. Plastic-chrome accents are mercifully kept to a minimum, and the Abarth and Turbo now have black headlight and taillight surrounds.

Fiat has pulled it off the whole retro thing well. It may be hard to believe for some, but the “new” 500 has been produced for nearly a decade, and only this year is receiving its first facelift in the European market. Without going overboard on styling, the design has managed to remain fresh. The 500 concept was styled by Roberto Giolito, lead designer at Fiat, and refined by current McLaren designer Frank Stephenson, who penned the original new Mini as well as the BMW X5.

The Fiat 500 delivers that Italian car response in people. It comes from the way it looks (especially in classic Italian red), and the way somebody will have a little moment of delight just by seeing one. It also comes from the way you can so easily pull one in to a parallel parking space and then a stranger will stop to talk to you about the curious car. It’s the interesting little details and nice touches, as well as the technology. It’s in the performance. The burbling exhaust and turbo whistle on your morning commute, and the back roads that aren’t really on the way home.

[* This is actually a “new” car. Although it is a 2014 model, the car had never been sold before. Why? Well, I suspect most people who would opt for a performance-oriented Fiat jumped to the Abarth or simply wanted the extra power without having to use a clutch and bought an automatic. There were a lot of Fiats at the dealership, but only three had manual transmissions. One of the others was yellow Abarth. My mom bought it.]

Photos by Ian Rothwell / Ran When Parked

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One thought on “In our garage: Fiat 500 Turbo

  1. I completely agree. We have a 500 Pop in our household. Yes, a bit under powered. But the only new car I know of that makes me smile when I drive it, you can take it on long trips and still have energy and overall a well built little car.

    Makes me think about a Cabrio Abarth…

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