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2012 Fiat 500

Base MSRP: $15,500 to $19,500
Reviewed
April 2011
by ConsumerSearch
2012 Fiat 500

Fiat returns to the U.S. with a retro hatchback

Pros
  • Unique Italian styling
  • Personalization options
  • Comfortable for two
  • Fuel efficient (with manual transmission)
  • Nimble handling
  • Modern options available
Cons
  • Untested reliability
  • Small dealer network
  • Limited cargo space
  • Rear seat is tight

The 2012 Fiat 500 marks Fiat's return to the U.S. market after a hiatus of more than 25 years. The 500's irresistibly good looks and interior style make it stand out among strong competition, and it's a comfortable ride for two, say reviewers. The Fiat 500 is considered an A-segment car, meaning its size is closer to some of the most compact cars available, such as the 2011 Smart ForTwo (Base MSRP: $12,490 to $17,690), though it's not quite as small. Due to its diminutive size, though, rear-seat room and cargo space are limited compared to many rivals. Cars like the 2011 Honda Fit (Base MSRP: $15,100 to $16,860) and the 2011 Ford Fiesta (Base MSRP: $13,320 to $17,120) can be had for a similar price, but offer more space and practicality, as well as the same or better levels of fuel efficiency.

Style wins critics over

All reviewers enjoy the Fiat 500's distinctive style and cabin size, and they generally find these to be among the hatchback's most appealing aspects. Automobile Magazine is pleasantly surprised to find an interior that "is far more highly styled than one usually sees in this category, with a big swath of body-color trim on the dash." While the interior materials may not be particularly impressive, James Cobb at The New York Times finds that "they're elevated by creative Italian design." The number of interior color options is also unusual; there are 14 available interior shades. Car and Driver finds the interior to be "surprisingly spacious, thanks to the upright greenhouse," and says that overall the 500 is "very comfortable inside."

As expected, the rear seat is very small. Cobb says it's good for "a couple of children, a largish dog, or any number of tightly packed sorority sisters in full party mode." Folding down the rear seats allows for more cargo capacity, a good-for-its-size 30.1 cubic foot maximum.

The high style on the interior carries over to the exterior as well, where the Fiat again comes in 14 colors, not including graphics packages that are available. TheTruthAboutCars.com's Michael Karesh summarizes the common sentiment that the Fiat 500 is "not onlyÉterribly cute, but the design is executed well." Jalopnik.com describes the overall cute aesthetic by saying the 500 looks like "a Pixar rendering in metal."

Lots of upgrade possibilities

The Fiat 500 can be optioned with a number of upscale available features. These include heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity, a Bose stereo, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, Tom-Tom navigation and satellite radio. These options either come with the more expensive trim packages (Pop, Sport and Lounge, in order of ascending price) or are available in special option packages.

While many experts would agree with the Automobile Magazine assessment that the 500's principal appeal is "not so much as a gas miser or as a tear-around funster, but as a design object," there still is substance underneath the attractive packaging.

Choose the stick for the best fuel economy

The 2012 Fiat 500's 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine produces 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque; most reviewers agree this is adequate power for the little car. The Fiat is offered with either a five-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. Both operate smoothly and harness the engine's power well, though some critics dislike the on-dash positioning of the shift lever. Fuel economy with the manual transmission is significantly better than with the automatic. With the five-speed stick, the Fiat 500 gets an EPA-estimated 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway. That drops to 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the automatic. Fuel economy with the automatic is also lower than that of many rivals, such as the 2011 Ford Fiesta. Fiat will offer the 500 with an electric powertrain in 2012 as a 2013 model-year vehicle.

Ride and handling get mixed feedback

In a small car such as the Fiat 500, ride quality could be a concern, but reviewers assuage these fears in reporting that the 500 has a rather pleasant ride, athletic handling and a quiet cabin. Many reviewers, such as Joe DeMatio and Joe Lorio at Automobile Magazine, are "very impressed with the 500's ride quality over a variety of roads, including the beaten-up pavement in and around NYC." A few writers disagree and find that the ride can be a bit unsettled at highway speeds. Some, like TheTruthAboutCars.com, think that bumps easily upset the Fiat's composure. Generally, reviewers like the Fiat's handling, but a few wish it were more athletic and seek more steering feedback. Road and engine noise are well controlled.

Safety and warranty information

The Fiat 500 has not been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as of this writing. The 500 does include plenty of standard safety equipment, such as front side airbags, side curtain airbags, a driver knee airbag, stability control, traction control and antilock brakes. Keep in mind that in an IIHS study, subcompact and minicars that performed well in crash tests against cars their own size did not perform well against typical midsize cars. A link to this study can be found in our sources.

The Fiat 500's basic and powertrain warranty covers four years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. Roadside assistance is also provided for the first four years. Fiat's dealer network is small though, with only 130 dealers across the country selling and servicing 500s. This is a factor worth considering for those who don't live in the vicinity of one of the planned Fiat dealerships.

Summing up the 2012 Fiat 500

Distinctive style and European flair set the 2012 Fiat 500 hatchback apart from its rivals. Beyond the aesthetics, the Fiat delivers good fuel efficiency with the manual transmission, good optional technology, nice personalization options and a comfortable ride. Car and Driver summarizes all this nicely by saying that the Fiat 500 "drives with as much personality as the shape it boasts." The 500 may not be the best reviewed or sportiest choice in its price range, but there's enough here to "charm the pants off those looking for a practical, affordable and Italian-designed hatchback," according to Edmunds Inside Line.

Where To Buy

Our Sources

1. Edmunds.com

The 2012 Fiat 500, which marks Fiat's return to the U.S. market, is an "adorable" subcompact that delivers a modicum of practicality and fuel efficiency akin to the Mini Cooper. Potential downsides are an as-yet untested reliability record, and Fiat's limited dealer network, which could make service hard to find in some areas.

Review: 2012 Fiat 500, Editors of Edmunds.com

2. Car and Driver

A distinctive personality is the Fiat 500's defining feature, says Jared Gall. This includes the unique interior styling, the retro exterior and a large array of color combinations. This sentiment also extends to the driving experience, in which the "steering is quick and linear but a bit light." The Fiat isn't the fastest by any means, but it makes for a good, relaxing driver, Gall says.

Review: 2012 Fiat 500 U.S.-Spec -- First Drive Review, Jared Gall, Jan. 2011

3. Motor Trend

Motor Trend calls the 500's engine refined, adequately powerful and quiet, but this reviewer and his colleagues point out that braking distance is only average for the car's size and that the back of the Fiat 500 can wiggle under hard braking.

Review: First Test: 2012 Fiat 500, Jonny Lieberman, Jan. 27, 2011

4. Automobile Magazine

Automobile Magazine points out that the Fiat 500 is smaller than many believe, comparing it to the tiny Smart ForTwo in size. But Joe DeMatio and Joe Lorio say it has the attributes of a larger car. They note that seating is comfortable, the 500 can carry four passengers and the cabin has an airy feel to it. The conclusion here is that the Fiat 500's "principal appeal is not so much as a gas miser or as a tear-around funster, but as a design object."

Review: First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500, Joe DeMatio, Joe Lorio, Jan. 27, 2011

5. Cars.com

The styling, as others have noted, is one of the main features of the Fiat 500, according to Kelsey Mays. He finds less to like about the ride quality than some other reviewers, remarking that highway travel has pronounced "up-and-down" motion and there is significant body roll in cornering. Gas mileage with the automatic transmission is singled out for being particularly low compared with the 500's competition.

Review: 2012 Fiat 500, Kelsey Mays, Feb. 24, 2011

6. Edmunds Inside Line

Barry Winfield acknowledges that the 2012 Fiat 500 will "charm the pants off those looking for a practical, affordable and Italian-designed hatchback." Despite that, the reviewer finds the current base engine to be underpowered. At $15,500 though, the Fiat 500 is deemed to be a good deal for subcompact shoppers.

Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport First Drive, Barry Winfield, Jan. 28, 2011

7. The New York Times

Amusingly, the reviewer likens the Fiat 500's small size on American roads to "a hummingbird egg in a dinosaur's nest." He praises the Fiat for delivering a pleasant interior design and a good use of the available interior space. This is a first-drive impression and is relatively light in its findings.

Review: Driving the Fiat 500: A Spicy Mini-Meatball, James G. Cobb, March 8, 2011

8. Autoblog.com

This review doesn't find any part of the Fiat 500's package to be particularly lacking, but at the same time it doesn't offer any meaningful analysis. The solid driving feel and quiet ride are appreciated, and the six-speed automatic is praised for its good responses.

Review: First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500, Rex Roy, Feb. 2, 2011

9. Jalopnik.com

This first drive provides a nice explanation of Fiat's innovative MultiAir engine technology, as well as the modifications that were made for the U.S.-market 500. The reviewer finds that underneath the attractive style and avant-garde interior is "a real carÉthat's worth playing with."

Review: 2012 Fiat 500: First Drive, Justin Hyde, Jan. 28, 2011

10. TheTruthAboutCars.com

Character and style are highlighted here. Corroborating the findings of other reviewers, Michael Karesh says the engine is underpowered, and he criticizes the transmission's high-mounted shifter. Fuel economy is also a disappointment. Unlike some other reviews, this one describes the Fiat 500's handling as less "dialed-in" than that on competitors such as the Mini Cooper and the new Mazda2 subcompact.

Review: Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Sport (US-Spec), Michael Karesh, March 18, 2011

11. Edmunds Inside Line

The Fiat 500, like some other small cars, will be offered with an electric powertrain within the next few years. More details can be found in this article.

Review: 2013 Fiat 500 EV Confirmed for U.S. Debut in 2012, Anita Lienert, March 22, 2010

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