Like the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle, the Fiat 500 is a modern recreation of a classic. The current-generation Fiat 500 was introduced in Italy five years ago on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 original. More than half a million Fiat 500s of the current generation have been sold in Europe, spurred by 60 international awards, including European Car of the Year in 2008. Now, as a Chrysler product, the Fiat 500 is being made in Mexico for the North American market.
In Italian, the Fiat 500 is known as the Cinquecento (chin-kweh-chento). Out of the box, it's a contender for fun-to-drive champ and as a four-seat A-class commuter car. We found it to be more fun than its competition, including Mini, Fit, Fiesta, Yaris, and Mazda2, though power is not its strong suit.
The Fiat 500 is about 6 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper, costs about $4000 less, and offers safety with a 5-star crash rating, sporty performance, fuel economy, technology, cool style and good looks. It features seven airbags, a 1.4-liter engine with MultiAir valve technology, Blue&Me hands-free technology, a Bose sound system standard in many models, and a 5-speed gearbox or optional 6-speed automatic transmission that's also fun.
The Fiat 500 is available as a two-door hatchback (or three-door, if you prefer) or a two-door convertible. A stretched, four-door version called the Fiat 500L is coming out early in 2013. Fiat 500 hatchbacks come in a range of trim levels: Pop, Lounge, Gucci, Sport, Turbo, and Abarth. Convertible 500c Cabrio models come in Pop and Lounge trim levels. An Abarth Cabrio is being introduced as a 2014 model.
The Fiat 500 Pop is both the lowest cost and most all-around practical model. For $2000 less than the Fiat 500 Sport, the Pop is less aggressive with a better ride. The Pop makes the most sense to us, but the extra equipment in the Sport is a great value, so you're a winner either way, as long as you know what you want. You can also get the automatic transmission in the Pop. You lose some Italian flavor with the automatic, but not having to constantly work your left leg in the city, or freeway traffic jams, may be a relief. The Lounge is for those who want their Cinquecento to feel more like a mainstream car, with the automatic transmission, softened ride and steering, added chrome, more amenities, and optional leather.
Unlike most convertibles, the Fiat 500c uses a retracting fabric center section of the roof, with the door frames, roof pillars and side windows exactly the same as on the Coupe models. It can be opened at speeds up to 60 mph.
For enthusiasts a new Fiat 500 Turbo has been added for 2013. This slots in between a Sport and the Abarth, with many Abarth upgrades to a lesser degree: 135 horsepower, upgraded gearbox, more aggressive bodywork, bigger front brakes.
The Fiat 500 Abarth model, a 500 with as much sting as the scorpion badges suggest, has been a sellout since its introduction as a 2012 model. A wholesale mechanical upgrade on the Sport, Abarth is $4500 more than a Sport and we submit worth every cent. It's the only Cinquento that has no Fiat badge anywhere and a price that does not end in 500.
All the models are aptly named. It would be best to take a test ride of at least two, preferably three flavors before you buy to feel the differences.