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Friday, June 1, 2018

2018 FIAT 500 Review

2018 FIAT 500 Review
The 2018 Fiat 500 packs more punch this year, but it’s still a statement of style over some substance.

Small cars often are appliances and not much else. We get that feeling, but there’s more out there.


The 2018 Fiat 500 hints at more than just a bland penalty box to shuttle passengers to work, home, work, home in an endless cycle.

It has ambition that it realizes—and some that it doesn’t. It earns a 4.8 on our overall scale. 

This year’s Fiat 500 received mild, “fluff and buff” changes on the exterior and a new standard 1.4-liter turbo-4 that’s actually old. It’s available in Pop, Lounge, and Abarth trim levels with a power-folding soft top “cabrio” version available at every stop.

The same basic design that made us smile when the 500 was new in 2012 has remained, with only a standard spoiler and a slightly tweaked front bumper to differentiate from last year’s version. Inside, a 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster on most models headlined the changes.

The biggest step for the 500 happened under the hood. A 135-horsepower 1.4-liter turbo-4 replaced the old engine in most trim levels. With 33 percent more power, the new engine is welcome, but “new” requires qualification: It’s the same engine Fiat offered in the 500 in 2015 and 2016 with a “Fiat 500 Turbo” badge. It helps the 2018 Fiat 500 pass on the highway, but it stops short of a sporty model.

The Fiat 500 Abarth comes closer. It’s powered by a 160-hp 1.4-liter turbo-4 that breathes freely, and by that we mean “will wake up the neighborhood.” It’s raucous fun, but it’s also not for everyone. We’re mature enough to admit that.

In any configuration, the Fiat 500 is like celebrating Valentine’s Day—best kept for two adults, or someone is going home with hurt feelings.

Storage space is oddly shaped and scant, and the rear seats aren’t large enough for adults.

Base cars are reasonably equipped by small car standards. Each 500 comes complete with 16-inch wheels, power features, a rearview camera, and good looks, but the 5.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment lacks Android Auto or Apple CarPlay compatibility, which we think is a glaring omission for an inexpensive car aimed at younger buyers.

The EPA hasn’t yet tallied the 500’s fuel-economy scores, but Fiat guesses that the car will manage 28 mpg city, 33 highway, 30 combined with the manual transmission. That’s not particularly frugal among small-car competitors.

Styling
Style is where the 2018 Fiat 500 shines, and it looks like no other car on the road.

The 2018 Fiat 500 is about style more than anything else. After nearly a decade on the road, it still manages to draw some smiles and its charm is undeniable.

We give the 500 a point above average for its exterior shape. This year’s 500 is slightly different than last year’s, although the differences are hard to spot—even for us. We land at a 6 out of 10 for style. 

The Fiat 500 captures the personality of the old Fiat “cinquecento” thanks to its upright, boxy look and small footprint. Button headlights and small grille openings are a nod to the past, while its extra bulk up front is a nod to current crash-safety regulations. The 500’s profile and clamshell hood give us “feel-goods” about the current car, and the new spoiler affixed to all cars is sharp without being annoying. The other difference for this year’s car? Larger lower front fascia openings. Yup, that’s it.

Inside, the Fiat 500 tries hard—maybe a little too hard—but its outre style helps distract from the budget materials. It’s still a hodgepodge of buttons and textures but instead of flat black plastic everywhere, at least the automaker adds a body-colored dash that we appreciate.

Cabrio models sub in a power cloth roof that folds in the back (and completely blocks outward vision) that can be black, red, beige, or gray depending on trim level and configuration.

Abarth models add sporty touches all around and look the part of a rorty two-seater with scorpion badges and available mirror and roof caps in contrasting color.

Performance
This year’s power bump for the Fiat 500 is welcome, and the 500 Abarth is more fun than a misbehaved puppy.

The big news this year for the 2018 Fiat 500 is a switch to all turbocharged powertrains (except for the battery-electric 500e).

The base engine is now a 1.4-liter turbo-4 that makes 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Those figures should sound familiar; it’s the same engine from the discontinued Fiat 500 Turbo.  

That new, old engine constitutes a power bump of about one-third from last year’s base version, but not enough to feel sporty. The top-trim Fiat 500 Abarth is the only version that feels energetic thanks to 160 hp wrung from its 1.4-liter turbo-4.

The Fiat 500 gets a 4 out of 10 for performance on our scale, with one point dropped for a bouncy ride—common for small cars. 

The base 1.4-liter turbo-4 adds confidence where it was sorely lacking last year. Last year’s base engine made roughly 100 horsepower and required a heavy right foot to keep the car on boil. The standard 5-speed manual didn’t help much either; the clutch take-up felt too high and the gear throws are frustratingly long for a small car.

Based on our time in the 2016 Fiat 500 Turbo with the same engine as this year’s base model, added grunt will help, especially in highway passes. We’d still advise a heavy right foot, even with the new engine; the turbos will need constant prodding to keep at attention.

If the 500 is going to be driven daily, we’d suggest the 6-speed automatic to keep traffic jams frustration-free.
If the 500 looks like a plaything, we’d highly suggest driving the Fiat 500 Abarth that adds more power and an intoxicating exhaust that cackles like a chainsaw on cold morning starts.

The Abarth is rated at 160 hp and 170 lb-ft with the manual (157 hp and 183 lb-ft with the automatic) and it has the most personality of the bunch.

All versions of the 500—especially the Abarth—are nervous on the road and won’t be comfortable for long hauls. That anxiety partially a byproduct of the sport wheelbase, but also due to the standard sport-tuned suspension.

Comfort & Quality
Bring a friend in the 2018 Fiat 500, just don’t bring many more. Unless they’re imaginary friends, then they’ll fit too.

Small cars struggle in our comfort scale. The 2018 Fiat 500 is among the smallest on the roads, and it asks for some compromises in its cute shape.

Four people won’t fit in the small hatchback without some compromises, and cargo space is scant at 9.5 cubic feet in coupes, or 5.4 cubes in convertibles. We take away points for both and land at a 3 out of 10 for comfort. 

The Fiat 500’s basic shape has been around for more than a decade, and it’s the seventh model year for the small car in America.

The front seats are the best seats for the 500 (and we’d argue the only seats suitable for adults), but they are thinly padded and fairly upright. The upright seating position means that some tall drivers may be looking for more head room in the coupe, but cabrio models have roughly 90,000 feet of head room. Problem: Solved.

Most versions of the 500 will be noisy inside, except for the 500e (we cover it separately) and the 500 Abarth (noisy is the point).

The rear seats are fit for a penalty box. With a scant 31.7 inches of rear leg room, we’d suggest using the rear seats as a cargo shelf, or better still, folded for more cargo room.

There’s good news: the 500’s quirky style and small wheelbase make it fun to zip around town and the interior’s faults are forgivable if style is your primary mission. Ask the Fiat 500 to do any more and it starts to fall down.

Safety
Official data for 2018 isn’t yet in, but what’s available so far is below average.

Federal and independent testers haven’t been kind to the Fiat 500 since it was introduced in 2011. Official safety information for 2018 isn’t yet available, but considering this year’s similarities with last year’s version, we can confidently carry over those scores.

Federal testers gave the Fiat 500 a four-star overall score and the IIHS rated the car’s small-overlap front crash safety as “Poor.” Both are demerits on our scale and bring the 500 down to a 3 out of 10. 

This year, Fiat made standard a rearview camera that should help outward vision, which is particularly poor in convertible models with the roof down.

Advanced safety features such as automatic emergency braking and active lane control are omitted from the 500 lineup. Parking sensors are included on all but the base model, but that’s it.

Aside from active safety features, the Fiat 500 is equipped with seven standard airbags, traction and stability control systems, and active head restraints.

Features
The 2018 Fiat 500 is reasonably equipped for a small car, but the lack of Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility is a glaring omission.

The Fiat 500 doesn’t have much room to pack in myriad features, it’s comparatively one of the smallest cars on the road today.

This year, Fiat made standard a rearview camera that was optional last year and that’s about it. The 2018 Fiat 500 is available in Pop, Lounge, and Abarth trim levels, with a roofless “cabrio” version available at every stop.

Base cars are equipped with 16-inch wheels, a 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster, cloth seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and a 5.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment. The small touchscreen does not support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and navigation is an optional extra on all trim levels, which we think is an oversight for the inexpensive car aimed at younger buyers.

We give the 500 a point above average for that base equipment and land at a 6 out of 10 for features. 

Cabrio versions are identically equipped but add a power-folding roof and rear parking sensors that are necessities, rear vision is nearly nonexistent with the roof folded down.

Spring for the Lounge trim level and the 500 adds heated leather-trimmed seats, automatic climate control, and heated side mirrors.

Abarth models feature more horsepower, red brake calipers, grippy cloth seats, an analog instrument cluster, and sporty steering wheel. The Abarth offers as optional 17-inch wheels, leather seats, unique side mirrors, premium audio by Beats, and heated front seats.

Fiat offers a free track day and instruction to new owners of Abarth models at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving near Phoenix.

Most versions of the Fiat 500 will be available with a handful of factory-installed options, which is somewhat rare for inexpensive, small cars.

Fuel Economy
The 2018 Fiat 500 isn’t as fuel-efficient as you might expect.

This year, Fiat has moved the 500 to an all-turbocharged roster of engines. The base 1.4-liter returns 24 mpg city, 32 highway, 27 combined when equipped with an automatic, 28/33/30 mpg with a manual, according to the EPA. Premium unleaded is recommended by the manufacturer, but regular gasoline is acceptable.

That's good enough for a 7 out of 10 on our fuel economy scale.

The more potent Fiat 500 Abarth ups the power without impacting fuel economy much. It's rated at 24/32/27 mpg with an automatic transmission, 28/33/30 mpg with a manual.

Those figures for the Fiat are significantly lower than the outgoing base engine that had less power. Other small cars do better with a gallon of gas. The 2018 Mini Cooper’s base engine is rated up to 32 mpg combined, and the Honda Fit returns 36 mpg combined with its automatic transmission.

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