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Video: Fiat 500 - Not Recommended, but not hated, either

Consumer Reports News: August 23, 2011 11:53 AM

Today, we announced that the tiny Fiat 500 hatchback scored too low in Consumer Reports testing to be recommended. Since I spend a lot of time on Internet car enthusiast forums, I know how many misspelled, grammar-fractured posts are going to read: “Consumer Reports hates the 500.” Thing is, we don’t hate the 500. So, what gives?

First the good news: The 500 marks Fiat’s return to the American market after a nearly 30 year absence. It makes sense for Fiat to return with a car that tugs at emotional heartstrings, rather than duking it out with the Accords/Camrys /Sonatas of the world. It’s much better to invoke pleasant memories of romantic movies, red wine, and pasta instead of images of rusted Bravas and Stradas on the side of the road. No doubt, the 500 turns heads and has a certain cachet. More tangibly, the 500 is also a hoot to drive and it’s quite fuel efficient. (Read our Fiat 500 road test.)

But there’s a pretty long list of negatives here too:

  • This may be Captain Obvious talking, but such a small car presents packaging issues. The rear seat is tiny, and there isn’t much cargo space. What’s more, the 500 inherited the classic Italian arms-straight-out driving position, which isn’t helped by the narrow cabin. Over-the-left-shoulder visibility is surprisingly bad, too.

  • The old adage “It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow” has some truth to it. It certainly applies here, because the 500 (even with the manual transmission of our test car) is pretty darn slow.

  • Although some interweb posters will doubtlessly blame “watering-down” of the original European 500, they’re wrong. This 500 drives dramatically better than the Euro-spec 500s we sampled. Despite those refinements, the ride remains busy and the car is pretty noisy.

Maybe some of these transgressions would be more forgivable if you ignore the competition. The closest rival to the 500 is the base Mini Cooper, which is like a jet-powered, better-steering, commodious moving van in comparison. (It also gets about the same fuel economy, but it does cost more.) For the same price as our 500 Sport, you can get a Ford Fiesta SES or Mazda2. They aren’t as cute, but they’re more practical and they’re also fuel efficient and great fun to drive with sharper steering.

Proof of the 500’s disconnect came when I drove our just-arrived and not-yet-tested 500c convertible test car into work this morning. Visibility is lousy, the seats are squishy, the ride is busy, and I bounced off the second gear rev-limiter when passing another car. That said, it was a memorable and fun drive. My colleague Jim Travers found the same thing during a long highway trip with our 500 hatchback.

In the end, our job is to inform the consumer. If you want a 500 (or a Jeep Wrangler, or any other car we don’t recommend for that matter), read our review. If you can live with those sacrifices, then you made an informed decision. Nothing to hate about that.

Tom Mutchler

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