The world’s car companies should never make us suffer another ugly car. No more Pontiac Azteks, AMC Pacers or Hyundai Ponies. Even nicely designed runabouts with bargain-basement prices should always be at least cute.
Look no further than the Fiat 500 for proof. This design isn’t for everyone, but then, some would argue that People magazine’s most beautiful woman, Gwyneth Paltrow, is a little scrawny and others say Amanda Seyfried’s eyes are too big and she’s too short.
I prefer to toss aside such foolishness. Intelligent, pop culture observers all agree that Gwyneth and Amanda are lovely, just as we can all share the notion that Fiat has put some energy and style into its little 500 two-door. True, the 500 is the same size as a good subwoofer, but the car is also well proportioned, balanced and tidy.
And then we have the details. The 500 Sport turbo I just drove came in a rich red colour that was highlighted by silver aluminum wheels. At 16 inches, the wheels are just bigger than a Frisbee, though handsome, and large enough to do the job functionally and visually.
The cabin is a lesson for every car company in how to make an affordable car look expensive. Take the dual instrument cluster, the one with the outside ring indicating the speed, an inner one showing the engine speed. It delivers all the right information and, along with the red readouts in the centre, is a packaging tour de force.
Or the wide strip of bright red plastic running the length of the dashboard. This is just a hunk of plastic, one 3.5 inches wide. How much could that cost? But it looks delicious, set off by the number “500” in chrome to the far right, in front of the passenger. Simple and expressive.
The top of the dash, meanwhile, is made of a nicely grained plastic material, not leather or wood or carbon fibre. The switchgear in the centre for the radio, power windows and so on, all look modern, like they were done by a moonlighting Blackberry designer who knows touchpads and does them for those who loath touchscreens.
All this smart design and an affordable price tag. Pay attention here; I’m not talking about the $20,995 on the sticker. You see, like almost every other car brand, Fiat is in the discounting game. I spotted $3,500 in discounts you can bargain for.
Be warned, however; the profit margin on a 500 is as thin as the bucket seats in the car. (Which I must say are not the most comfortable seats on which I have rested my derriere – and what about a little back support, Fiat!) The point I’d make is that dealers will bargain hard to retain as much of the factory incentives as possible. They’re not giving away 500s, folks. Then again, even premium brands like Lexus are discounting in this market; expect some price-cutting from Fiat, too, if you’re serious.
Discounts aside, the 500 is not really a highway car. The cabin is a tight fit up front for two decent-sized adults. The back seat is smaller than a hockey bag. The 500 is not an everyday four-passenger car, unless they’re all built like Audrey Hepburn.
Small as it is, the 500 is a Top Safety Pick by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – along with other minicars such as the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Prius c hybrid, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. All have done well in the range of crash tests – front, front overlap, side impact and roof crush. Small cars aren’t necessarily wimps.
They can get expensive if you don’t watch yourself, though. My tester came loaded with leather-trimmed buckets ($800), heated front seats ($400), a security alarm ($175), Beats premium audio ($995) and Tom Tom navigation ($495). Air conditioning was, surprisingly, an affordable $195. Love that. But still, add in the $1,595 destination charge, and my sub-$21,000 tester’s sticker ballooned to $25,750.
You’re certainly not paying for horsepower. The four-banger under the hood is turbocharged and, at 135 hp, is adequately powerful for darting through traffic, as long as you keep the engine revs up (there is a use for that tachometer, you know). It’s no monster motor, though. The standard five-speed manual gearbox – mine came trimmed with a leather shift knob marked by bold stitching – is smooth and precise and I worked it a lot to keep up with city traffic. Fuel economy is officially rated at 7.1 litres/100 km in the city and 5.7 on the highway, using premium fuel.
Keep the highway cruising to a minimum, though. The 500 has a short wheelbase and smallish tires and the suspension is pretty firm, too. That makes the car nimble in the city and jumpy/jittery at higher speeds.
No matter how fast you’re going, though, this one is a swishy little gem.
2013 Fiat 500 Sport turbo
Base price: $20,995 (freight $1,595)
Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 135 hp/150 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.7 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Spark, Smart fortwo, Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, Toyota Prius c, Toyota Yaris sedan