2016 Fiat 500 Driving Impressions

You can hope for snappier acceleration out of the Pop with the base 1.4-liter engine, which does over-achieve but only to the point where you start hoping for more. If you want to squeeze the most fun out of it, stay with the standard manual 5-speed and rev it to redline in every gear like the Italians do. The exhaust note begins to rasp at 3000 rpm, and shouts with enthusiasm up to redline. It feels like you’re getting to 60 mph in less than the reality of its 10 seconds.

Don’t expect too much when trying to pass uphill. Of course the Italians do it all the time, usually by getting a flat-out running start on the downhill before the uphill. And living like there is no tomorrow, defying the head-on crash with the truck coming the other direction. They need the additional safety structure that the North American version has.

Now we move up to the 135-horsepower Turbo, and everything changes. A 35 percent boost in horsepower is just what the doctor ordered. We take back what we said about hoping for more.

But if you still do, then welcome to the world of Abarth. It’s been around since at least 1957, the roots of the car, when there was a 750cc Fiat-Abarth racing car. The biggest and best team was owned by president Franklin Roosevelt’s son.

The 160-horsepower Abarth throws it all on the road. It’s somewhat twitchy with all that turbo power to the front wheels. Can’t get away from smallish wheels and a torsion beam rear axle, even with wider tires. It’s got stiffer shocks and springs, and feels it, but the ride is still okay. That stiffness actually makes the handling more nimble by limiting roll in the turns.

Abarth’s raucous exhaust, while trying to imitate the snarl of a pit bull (fairly successfully), comes across more in attitude like a yapping Chihuahua. The bite doesn’t back up the bark, not even with the horsepower.

The standard 5-speed manual shifts with light effort and precision, but the clutch action is problematic because there’s such a tiny box for your feet. To make it worse, the clutch pedal has a long stroke and high location.

A 6-speed automatic transmission is available in the Turbo, Abarth, and Abarth Cabrio. There is a Sport mode that sharpens the transmission shift points and throttle response.

The Fiat 500 corners with liveliness and flexibility, like the frisky Ford Fiesta but different. Its wheelbase of 90.6 inches is the same as the old Honda CRX sports car (still popular for racing). The electric power steering has a meaty bite, and heavy feel; it’s certainly not over-boosted.

The Sport model, with its larger 16-inch wheels and stiffer suspension, rides nearly as nice as the Pop.

The Fiat 500e electric model is just as exciting in its own way. It has better weight distribution, thanks to the 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that’s mounted low and rearward. The system makes 111 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque, so it’s every bit as quick as the base Pop, and clearly feels it. It has a range of 87 miles around town. We drove a 500e for one week, and found that the range at 60-65 mph was more like 50-55 miles. That’s without using the air conditioning. Range anxiety rules.

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