When I asked Chrysler for a Dodge Challenger to review they delivered a Fiat 500 Sport instead. There was no reason to feel crestfallen. A proper auto enthusiast doesn’t judge a car on preconceived notions and Jennifer Lopez commercials but on driving impressions.
The little Italian stallion makes a strong case for itself in the way of curb appeal alone. For starters it’s not a Mini Cooper. Any Seattleite who throws a handful of Skittles over their shoulder is bound to hit at least six of those popular little runabouts, or the headliner of their own for that matter.
Dressed up in Fiat’s Sport package the 500 comes equipped with sixteen-inch alloy wheels, a roof spoiler, fog lamps, tighter suspension tuning, recalibrated steering, sport seats and a five-speed manual.
Commonplace sports upgrades such as these sometimes only serve as flimsy attempts to slap sports car image on a vehicle that will still make finding a manager’s special on milk the most exciting part of a trip to the grocery store.
This isn’t the case with the 500, and a big reason for that is how incredibly small it is. Besides the Smart Fortwo the 500 is the smallest car sold in the United States. On a car of its size adding a sports package with sport-tuned suspension, more responsive steering and manual transmission turns it into a joyously tossable car that's surprisingly fun on just about any city street.
The result is a rarity of the daily driver breed that can provide a giddy thrill in places a Dodge Challenger would only be able to grunt and growl in frustration.
The 500 doesn’t need a drag strip or passing lane to impress, it prefers cutting hard lines through roundabouts and darting through city traffic to make it to an office supplies store before close; any road is big enough for a thrill.
Still, for as much fun as the 500 Sport can extract from day-to-day driving it’s not advisable to test it against many other cars in a test of raw acceleration. Besides the high-performance Abarth 500, all other models are powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 102hp and 98 pound-feet of torque.
Those are respectable numbers for such a wee car, until you come to an inevitable point in any Fiat 500 review:
The Mini Cooper Comparison
In a best case scenario the 500 can make it from 0 to 60mph in 10.5 seconds with a manual transmission – nearly 1.5 seconds slower than a base Mini Cooper.
On top of that the Mini has nearly identical fuel economy numbers to the 500’s impressive 30cty/38hwy. Looking at it that way, the 500’s smaller platform can seem less like a selling point and more like Smart Fortwo gimmickry aimed at people who know about as much about Italian cars as they do Stouffer’s lasagna.
But looks can be deceiving. Despite being 7 inches shorter in length and 2 inches narrower than the Mini, the 500 is 4 inches taller. With the added height the 500 is able to accommodate a more upright seating position that increases legroom, visibility and creates a “bigger” cabin feel.
Aside from “the feel”, the 500 boasts 9.5 cubic feet of luggage space – significantly more than the Mini. With the 500’s backseats down luggage capacity grows to 30.2 cubic feet – nearly 25 percent more than a Cooper hatchback.
Keeping in mind the 500 starts at about four grand less than a base Mini Cooper hatchback, there’s plenty of reason to give it a serious look. Other cars in its market segment are more spacious and faster in a straight line for comparable money, but few if any can provide such a unique fun factor behind the wheel.
Plus, it’s not every decade Americans can put a new Italian car in their driveway for around sixteen grand. Those who really want to live the dream should opt for the Sport package - it's well worth the money.