We’ll be spending and entire week with the little Fiat in early June. However MF correspondent Brendan Nystedt just couldn’t resist the temptation of a quick spin so we present you MF’s very first quick spin in the latest MINI competitor that has made it’s way to North America.
Today, I found myself somewhere I never imagined: an American Fiat dealership. And I didn’t even have to hop in my TARDIS to get there. On sale, the new Fiat 500. As evidenced recently here on MF, the rivalry between the micro Italian Stallion and the Limey Wonder is just now heating up. Does MINI need to check itself before it wrecks itself?
The Fiat dealership in Fremont, (actually Newark) California has only been open for a couple of weeks at this point. In fact, their grand opening isn’t until the 7th of May. The showroom used to house a Nissan dealership. Now it’s home to a handful of cheerful new 500s, a classic red Nuova 500 and a Fiat Roadster (both for display purposes only). There were plenty of models in each range on display which was surprising to me. I don’t recall a MINI dealership having this much product ready so soon after launch. Unless memory mistakes me, MINI dealers had to fight tooth and nail for cars other than those custom-ordered by customers.
The car I drove was a bright red 500 Pop. This is the base trim level. I had the pleasure of piloting a 5-speed, with sunroof and little else. The engine is a 1.4L Fiat MultiAir engine which produces 101 HP and 30/38 MPG. I knew going into this car that it wouldn’t be quite the same as the 500 Sport which has larger wheels and a reworked suspension. Until Abarth models come to the US, the Sport is the model which is most directly comparable to the 2006 R50 I drive.
Because this car is softer than the Sport edition, it tended to wallow through corners a little more. The clutch feel was nonexistent and the shifting like a spoon through gelatin. The engine is more than capable and even peppy. The steering feel and throttle both improve with the sport button but the steering never gets close to the level of involvement of any MINI I’ve ever driven.
The interior was spartan, devoid of soft-touch plastics. The instruments and buttons were all cheap, thin plastic with poor feedback. The headliner feels like recycled felt, a motif which continues in the hatch of the car. On the upside, 6 speaker sound system, 7 airbags (!), ESC, 4-wheel disc brakes, leather steering wheel, Bluetooth and USB are standard. As are, inexplicably, power heated mirrors.
Despite the shortcomings, it’s a fun little runabout. It isn’t as nice as the MINI. A direct comparison of a 500 Sport to a Cooper with upgrades shows almost a $5000 difference in price. I think this could be a winner for cheap and cheerful transportation, the former lacking in the increasingly upscale MINI brand.
Stay tuned for MF’s coverage of the building feud and Gabe’s full review sometime in June.
Thanks to Joel at Fiat of Fremont for the extended test drive. You can visit their website here.