by Michael Waterman
Some drivers want a cute, small and affordable car. If that brief description sounds like your dream machine, look closely at the Fiat 500.
It definitely meets the cute and small criteria. And when it comes to affordability, starting price for a 2012 base model is only $15,550. That's nearly $4,500 less than either the Volkswagen Beetle or Mini Cooper Hardtop–two other cute and small hatchbacks with distinctive designs and devoted fans.
Let's look at five reasons to drive the 2012 Fiat 500.
There's one big reason people like small cars: they're exceptionally fun to drive in the city where they have just enough pep to zip you from one intersection to the next. The 500 isn't built for the freeway; it's built to run from the café to the neighborhood bistro and back to your office or apartment.
The Fiat 500 has rounded curves at nearly every angle and 16-inch aluminum wheels with attractive rims. It sports rounded headrests and splashes of color inside the cabin. It's not big. It's not spacious and it's not particularly fast. But it's huge on Italian style. If cute and fun is what you want, cute and fun is exactly what you get in the Fiat 500.
The 500 ain't no hybrid and it's not going to top the Toyota Prius c's 50-plus mpg ratings in an efficiency battle. But that's not where the Fiat 500 competes. The 500's natural competitors are the Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini Cooper Hardtop and perhaps the Ford Fiesta (and a few other hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and Chevy Sonic).
Compare the base Fiat 500 with a manual transmission to the Mini Cooper Hardtop, the Beetle and the Ford Fiesta (all with manual transmissions) and you may be surprised to discover the Fiat 500 is the most fuel-efficient of the bunch. Choose the highly recommended manual transmission in the 500 Sport model and you can expect 30 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. That equates to 33 mpg combined.
The Ford Fiesta matches that 33 mpg score while the Mini Cooper returns a combined 32 mpg. Surprisingly, the VW Beetle with manual transmission only gets 25 combined mpg. The only efficiency downside is that the Fiat 500 recommends–but doesn't require–premium gasoline. So you'll spend a few extra pennies there.
During my week driving the Fiat 500 Sport I covered 230 miles and averaged 35 mpg with a good chunk of that driving on the highway.
If the 500's fuel efficiency surprised you, you may be absolutely shocked to learn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the Fiat 500 a Top Safety Pick. This little hatch aced its safety tests, pulling in top scores in front, side rollover, and rear crash tests.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is a bit more skeptical, awarding the 500 a four-star rating for the driver in the front crash test and a three-star rating for the passenger. Strong safety scores notwithstanding, realize that if you tangle with a Ford F-150 in a collision, you'll feel it in the 500.
The Fiat 500 is designed to protect you with seven airbags, including driver side front and side air bags, side curtain air bags, plus front seat active head restraints and electronic stability control.
Rowing your own gears using paddle shifters is a remarkably bland experience in far too many cars–especially sedans. Today's automatic transmissions are so good, in fact, I nearly always recommend buyers choose the automatic in a new car.
Yet when it comes to small cars, selecting the manual transmission makes a world of difference in performance, fun and daily driving. You simply feel better connected to the road and the driving experience.
The Fiat 500 comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission and I strongly encourage you to forego the six-speed automatic. If you don't yet know how to drive a manual, it's time to learn.
The engine is small–a standard 1.4-liter four cylinder that generates only 101 horsepower. That's only a few more horses than the ultra-efficient and clinically boring-to-drive Prius c. The more similar Mini Cooper Hardtop offers 121 hp and it's a noticeable difference. Yet Fiat also offers the 500 Abarth model that includes a turbocharged version of the same 1.4-liter mill, but bumps the power up to an impressive 160 hp. I've driven both the Abarth and standard Fiat and either can deliver driving fun. Test drive both models. But no matter which model you choose, opt for the manual transmission. Trust me: you'll be happy you did.
In a world where four-door beige-on-beige or white-on-beige sedans are as common as Subway sandwich shops, Fiat gives you a chance to buy a bright red, blue, yellow or even green 500. Go bold with your color choice and know that your car will stand out and you'll never lose it in a parking lot of sameness. You'll likely be the only one in your neighborhood driving your version of the 500. If you're looking for a chance to express your zesty side, the 500 may be a good starting point.
The Fiat 500 isn't the perfect small car. It's underpowered compared to most of its competition. Some of the plastic pieces feel quite, well, plasticky and cheap on the inside. It's loud on the freeway and though you can go 80-plus miles per hour, I suggest you drive the 500 most often in its natural habitat—the city. Rear-passenger space is tight and the car only accommodates four passengers. Yet storage space is more commodious than you might expect.
Is the Fiat 500 the right car for most drivers? No. But if these 5 reasons capture your attention, the Fiat 500 just may be the right car for you.
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