The Fiat 500 is the epitome of tidy design. Granted, it's easier to be tidy when there's less to deal with, and the Fiat is so small there isn't much. There's a chrome strip on the nose, like a pencil-thin moustache, that the Cinquecento's designer added because without it, he said, the car's styling was too perfect. Rarely does any manufacturer understand what clean really means, but Italians do. For that reason alone we need them back in America, as a good influence.
The face of the Fiat 500, with round halogen projector headlamps and parking lights, combines the family resemblance of other Fiat models sold in Italy, with a modern interpretation of the original Cinquecento, imported to the U.S. as a 600cc model back in the 1960s. No one in North America remembers, of course; but no matter. It's a winning European design that's been brought to America after a gentle massage to meet U.S. lighting and bumper standards.
Simplicity and strength are conveyed thanks to very short overhangs and muscular fenders, with the front fascia tapering outward to larger wheel arches on the Sport. On the Sport there's a horizontal cooling duct of black mesh that adds racy character, while the lower mesh grille integrates fog lamps. The hatch spoiler is a must for aesthetics and helpful for economy, rear-seat shade and Italian-speed stability.
The distinctiveness of the Fiat 500's shape appears from the profile view, more than front or rear. The black window outline on the Sport enhances the good looks of the all-business roofline, while the chrome on the Lounge, especially those chrome mirrors and door handles, detracts from or makes it pop depending on your view. The Sport also has rocker-panel cladding that isn't bad, as rocker-panel cladding goes.
The rear view is stylized by a chrome license-plate brow, common in cars today, but true to the original Cinquecento that was inspired by a bicycle seat, believe it or not. The rear tail lamps are located between the edges of the liftgate and follow the door's vertical cutline. For a contemporary look, the rear glass spans the width of the liftgate and meets cleanly at the pillar. The Lounge has a chrome rear bumper that adds a touch from the '50s.
Also, we might add that the coefficient of drag is 0.35, which is darn good for a little box of a car.
The original Fiat 500 had a canvas roof that's legendary, and today's Fiat 500 features an optional dark glass roof that copies the style. The optional sunroof is available as fixed or powered; in either case the shade is a semi-opaque fabric affair so check it in bright sun if you're not solar-powered.
There are five separate wheel designs of 15 or 16 inches, with at least three of them good-looking and eye-catching, and many vivid colors to choose from.
Fiat 500 Turbo and Abarth models look like a Sport on steroids, with deeper airflow-shaping devices at both ends making the car a couple of inches longer. Larger wheels are punctuated by big front brakes but the bigger, forged 17s really should be standard on Abarth, and the big exhaust barrels wouldn't be out of place on a hot rod. Brightly colored mirrors and Abarth racing stripes are available. Only four colors are offered for Abarth, while Turbos offer seven colors and no wallpaper. Abarth carries plenty of scorpion badges (Carlo Abarth was a scorpio), some with Italian-colors lightning bolts behind them, but the Abarth does not say Fiat anywhere on it.
If the exterior is the epitome of tidy, the interior is the epitome of neat. As Roberto Giolito, the head of Fiat Style says, it delivers absolutely everything that is required and nothing more. Unlike, say, an overly cute Mini and too-boring Yaris.
The Fiat 500 instrument panel gives the Fiat the visual feel of a sports car, except for its one flaw: a three-ring circus for instrumentation. The tachometer and speedometer are concentric and this takes some fun out of driving and shifting through the gears, in particular with the Sport, because it ought to have a tach of its own. The tachometer ring is inside the speedo ring, and almost all of the space inside the ring is taken up by LCD information. So all that's left is the tip of a tach needle moving around a chrome ring against small white numbers that are hard to read, especially past 6000 where the numbers are red. And the stub of the speedometer needle, with all its numbers to 140 mph, moves around outside that. It's almost as confusing to the eye as it is to the brain to read about here.
Also, if the Fiat were as simple as they say it is, the radio would have dials for volume and tuning, not buttons that you have to hold your finger on and take your eye off the road to watch the digital number tick along.
Everything else is real good, especially the metal instrument panel painted the same color as the car. And the seats, all four upholsteries, are really great. Standard cloth, premium cloth, sport cloth. It may be referred to as cloth, but it doesn't look like cloth. They're all different fabrics, all satisfying, as much like leather as cloth can feel. There's also optional premium leather, but the other seats are so sharp that leather isn't missed.
And the fit is mostly right, although other reviews have complained that there's not enough bolstering in the Sport seats; the Abarth is better in this respect and where 500 seats mightn't be as heavily bolstered as some they do have generous padding others don't.
The steering wheel tilts to adjust but does not telescope, a feature many wish for and one the arch-enemy Mini does better because it has both. We found front legroom adequate: One 6-foot, 6-inch driver said he fit okay in the 500, but your inside knee will be nestled against the relatively hard console side.
The top of the dash is vinyl and its design as simple as it gets: it's just there, and doesn't try to be anything, like for example the new Focus that tries to be a cockpit surrounding the driver. There are good armrests for both of the driver's elbows when holding the perfectly sized leather-wrapped steering wheel at 9 and 3 o'clock. The Sport shift knob is about as big and round and chrome as you can get away with. Doors cleverly lock with an inward push of the handles. And it's a little car with big long deep door pockets, how about that.
The climate and audio systems and vents are in the center over the console, but it's not exactly a center stack, it's less than that, while still being complete. The shift lever, whether manual stick or automatic, rises from the bottom of the dash, a forward place where it's a more natural reach and less-often fouled by passenger limbs.
Legroom in the rear is 31.7 inches, which is not much; we barely squeezed our briefcase behind the driver's seat. However, with the front seats slid forward, the rear legroom is not half-bad, but that's because the rear seat is a bench, so passengers sit upright. Fiat says it's roomy for two adults, and we wonder what species they mean, certainly not two adult humans. Young people running around town might not mind the squeeze, nor the climb into or out of the rear seat. With the rear seats up, you might be able to get a pair of soft-side carry-on bags in the back. Drop the seats and it's a little hatchback with lots of room to throw small stuff in, through the liftgate.
The glass roof in the Lounge not only makes the interior feel more airy, it raises the ceiling, over the headliner or optional sunroof; the sunshades have been darkened for 2013. There are three cupholders in front and two in back, and the glovebox is ample. Navigation is optional, a plug-in-dash unit you can take with you for security. It works with the Blue&Me hands-free communication that's standard on all but Pop.