Each of the Fiat 500 models is quite different in the way it drives. And the Turbo and Abarth are different breeds altogether.
Let's start with the Fiat 500 Sport, which is truly sporty, with a firm ride, thanks to stiffer springs and shock tuning, firmer brakes, and quicker steering. It all adds up to a wonderfully responsive car, although the ride isn't as relaxing as the Pop or Lounge models, especially over bumpy roads or in the city. But if play is what you like, you'll have a blast in the Sport.
The 5-speed gearbox uses a cable linkage between shifter and transmission, which gives it a ropey feel reminiscent of Volkswagens. We found it a bit clunky, not that much fun to shift. The clutch is light, with a long throw. It works, however. We never missed, never fumbled, and always got the heel-and-toe downshifts.
The Sport's red brake calipers can be seen through the 16-inch wheels in a color called Carbide and team with firmer suspension and larger, stickier tires for good brake performance. Brakes are the same size but stopping in the Sport is significantly more responsive than in the Pop and Lounge (due to tires and suspension), which is good when you're driving in a sporty manner, but it requires a soft touch around town. The Pop and Lounge do that soft touch for you. With 10.1-inch front and 9.4-inch rear rotors, and so little weight to bring down, getting stopped in time is never a worry in any of the models.
The 6-speed automatic transmission is available even on the Sport, and it is a transmission you can play with. The lever location is the same in the automatic as it is in the manual (although the knob isn't), so it feels like a stick shift. The Lounge comes standard with the automatic, and the Pop works well with it, as a compromise. There's a Sport mode for the automatic transmission that sharpens and delays the shifts nicely, without too much override, so you'll still have a sporty little car. While the automatic exacts a 10 percent penalty in EPA ratings, the real-world difference isn't that great, and acceleration performance isn't seriously hampered because the automatic has shorter gearing than the manual.
In the Lounge, the first thing you notice is how much looser and easier the steering is, then the same with the ride, and the brakes. In the city, this is good. The more relaxed steering makes the whole car feel a bit bigger, but the fixed glass roof in the Lounge has something to do with that, too.
The Fiat 500's 1.4-liter engine features a reinvention of the cylinder head called MultiAir technology, which results in an impressive 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque. MultiAir is a complex system that drives the intake valves by oil pressure actuators, triggered by electronic control: It's truly continuously variable valve timing. One big downside is that Premium fuel is recommended but 87-octane Regular unleaded is acceptable, according to Fiat.
EPA estimates 31/40 mpg City/Highway with the manual, but it might be better than that; we got 34.2 miles per gallon, revving it high and running it hard. On level highway cruising the numbers typically ran in the low 40s. Automatics are government-rated 27/34 mpg, and turbos are 28/34 mpg.
We've driven all the 500s, including Abarth and convertibles over winding California mountain roads, closed courses and crowded urban centers.
We found enough acceleration to work with when passing on two-lane roads in Sport mode. Manually shifting gears to stay in the powerband makes it fun on winding roads. It's a momentum machine. There is little torque at low rpm. (Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills.) The power comes on at a relatively high 4000 rpm and redlines at 6800, a point that's unfortunately hard to judge because of the difficulty of reading the tachometer, especially the red numbers and lines over 6000 rpm. At least the rev limiter cuts fuel gently; the engine just flattens at 6800, it doesn't nose-dive. Even at this point, there isn't a lot of horsepower. The second- and third-gear ratios are far apart, so in some situations you're either revving high in second gear or lugging in third gear.
One treat is that the engine feels like it's ready to shift at 5000 rpm, and it certainly can be shifted there and still maintain momentum, but it just keeps putting out for another 2000 rpm, pleasantly surprising you. Another pleasing aspect is that 80 mph in 5th gear is only 3300 rpm, and on level ground it glides fairly effortlessly at that speed. Ninety miles per hour in 4th gear is still only 5000 rpm. Do the math and that's a theoretical top speed of 153 mph in 4th gear; fat chance, but the sweet engine fools you into thinking it might just be capable. And it's reasonably quiet too, thanks to hydraulic engine mounts and extra sound deadening material.
The Turbo and Abarth are different animals, as every mechanical component is upgraded: engine, drivetrain, brakes, suspension, and electrics.
Fitted with a turbocharger, dual air-to-air intercoolers and pistons that enable a slightly lower compression ratio, a Fiat 500 Turbo generates 135 hp and 150 pound-feet of torque, a 50-percent torque gain on the base car. That drops 0-60 mph acceleration time from the lethargic 10-second range to mid-8s and makes it a much more flexible engine around town that needn't be revved much. With the same brakes and bodywork you can think of this as a light-pressure Abarth, a nice mid-point between a Sport and the lunatic Abarth.
The Abarth turbo pushes air into the engine at up to 18 psi. That allows 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, both at much lower revs than the 500, so the Abarth is not only substantially quicker it's also more relaxed, pushing full-steam by 3000 rpm rather than 6000. All that midrange torque means you play with the shifter as much for audio as for propulsion.
The Abarth model is quick only compared to a Fiat 500, a Smart car or other slow econoboxes. Still, 0-60 mph in about 7 seconds is plenty brisk and the Abarth can still do 25-35 mpg in daily driving. Alas, the blat and blare from the exhaust is loud like a piston-engine airplane and intoxicating, enough that onlookers often turn looking for a motorcycle. It's fun at times, but could wear for some owners.
The Abarth's 5-speed manual gearbox is stronger and has a tighter shifter than the standard Fiat 500. It's an improvement, but it is not on par with the best. No automatic is offered for Turbo or Abarth.
Front brakes are larger and do everything the Sport's do, only better. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard but unless you have really bad roads, the Abarth's forged 17-inch alloy and Pirelli combo should be factored in to your budget.
With an added rear antiroll bar and Koni FSD shocks not used on the Turbo, the Abarth changes direction quickly, rotates nicely off-throttle (for sharper response when turning into a tight corner) and offers good grip. It's very nimble, fun to drive and the relatively high seating position and 12-foot length make child's play of urban traffic. Both downsides are related to the relatively fat, low-profile tires: Those downsides are a busy ride on marginal road surfaces and the need for 38 feet of road for a U-turn, a full 7 feet more than a standard 500 and comparable to that of a midsize sedan.
To ensure full Abarth thrills, the electronic stability control system offers three modes, including full-off. An Abarth purchase includes a day of professional instruction with the Abarth Driving Experience, and we highly recommend that because it's fun.