MF Review: Fiat 500 Sport

Let’s get this out of the way up front. The Fiat 500 Sport does not compare favorably to the MINI Cooper in ways an enthusiast would appreciate. The steering is light and the clutch lighter. The manual transmission is vague at best and any propulsion out of the highly acclaimed 101 hp Multi-air Fiat 1.4L four cylinder feels like a happy coincidence. Within a half block behind the wheel of the 500 I was in ‘leisure’ mode whether I liked it or not. Yet it didn’t take long to really come to appreciate the meandering quality of the performance and the confident (and unfortunately cheap) ambiance of the Italian style inside and out.

But let’s not lose focus on what this car is. Clearly Fiat isn’t trying to out-do the MINI in terms of driving dynamics. Instead it’s focused on bringing costs down to deliver a stylish small car at an affordable price. Case in point the Fiat 500 Sport we tested came to $19,500 with Rosso Brilliante exterior paint, sunroof and the safety and convenience package. It’s a pretty impressive value proposition when you consider a standard Cooper with no options in the US can’t be had under $20k these days. And the Fiat 500 Sport comes with eight airbags, a better than good Bose Stereo and the cutest little red painted brake calipers I’ve ever seen.

Yet the Fiat feels a little lower rent than the MINI the second you open the door.

As much as the 500’s interior has been praised, it doesn’t take long to see where Fiat saved money. From the doors to the dash the 500’s interior is swathed in hard plastic of a variety that even the first generation new MINI (R50/R53) never had. The door pulls feel flimsy (not unlike the MINI) and the radio and climate controls are feeble attempts at interface design. Nevertheless it’s still a stylish interior. And for a car starting at $15K it’s hard to be too overly critical.

One area it compares well to the MINI is in interior space. With the space from the bulkhead to the bumper so short, Fiat has maximized the cabin and trunk space in a shape that is six inches shorter than the MINI. And putting numbers aside, the interior feels as big and (shockingly) the trunk seems even bigger.

Outside Fiat nailed the styling. It’s almost impossibly cute and blew away the MINI in heads turned in downtown Chicago. Probably the only thing that would get more attention from the stylish women of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood would be a shirtless Bradley Cooper, puppy in tow. Like the MINI eight years ago, you don’t buy a 500 to go unnoticed.

Electronically the 500 is much less sophisticated than the MINI. Gone is the three stage traction and stability control of the MINI and in its place a simpler stability control system that does a decent job of being transparent. Although it’s not hard with only 101 hp and 98 ft lbs of torque on tap.

Like the MINI the 500 also has a sport button that adds weight to the steering and a slightly more aggressive throttle mapping. But the key word in that is slight as in you barely feel the difference.

This feeling of being a generation behind MINI’s electro gadgetry carries on inside with the iPod connection. It relies on a system similar to MINI’s from the R50 or early R56 models that include a USB port in the glovebox and rudimentary controls within the radio interface.

But if we’re going to compare the 500 to the MINI we eventually have to get to the driving part. And that’s where it all falls apart right? We’ve already said that it’s controls are sub-par and the feel and feedback most of us love in the MINI is mostly absent here. But the 500 manages to get past this and deliver an experience that is very different than the MINI but successful in its own right.

There’s an ease to the driving experience of the 500 that one could call comfortable. The suspension is more compliant and the steering ratio slower but much lighter. The body’s motion is generally well controlled and the Sport feels appropriately damped but no more. Even the driving position and seats (more aptly called chairs) emphasize the comfortable driving experience as you sit more on than in them.

The fact that the little 500 actually feels neutral (when pushed) before the inevitable understeer will go unnoticed by 99% of those who drive it. Instead they’ll appreciate the soft and leisurely attitude of the stylish little Italian car they just put in their driveway.

Yet as a MINI driver, it’s hard to get into a 500 and feel dynamically satisfied. My very first reaction to driving the Fiat 500 was disbelief. I simply couldn’t believe how poorly executed the driving experience was as compared to the MINI. The clutch and transmission were sloppy, the steering exceedingly artificially boosted and the power simply non-existent.

How (outside of Italy) could Fiat expect to find a real audience for a car that was so decidedly less compelling to drive than the MINI? The answer lies in the styling, price and a well-excited meandering driving experience. Taken together the 500 could be precisely what many Americans new to small cars are looking for. Inexpensive style and a driving experience that blends into the background.

In those respects the 500 is a lot of car for the money. More importantly, that’s a hell of a lot of style for the money. However to us it’s not in the same league as even a standard $20,000 Cooper because at $4,500 less cost, it feels like about $7,000 less car.

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  • JonPD

    Well reasoned review Gabe, makes a lot of sense. Think the price is and unique “cute” styling is a strong selling point. I know for many years a lot of people that I know asked about MINI only to be horrified how a little car can cost so much. I think the big three sold cars for decades with the concept that bigger is better and smaller is cheap. I think a lot of this message still resonates with Americans today.

    • Really?

      Very accurate review Gabe. Style wise I actually find this car extremely appealing visually as well as “size wise” as the Mini has grown too big. Driving wise? Yeah, it sucks, but is still kinda fun in a way that you get the looks and questions that the R50/53 did when it first hit the US (man that was a fun time!).

      The convertible is very well done IMO.

      When the Abarth hits next year with a decent suspension and double the HP we will really have something to compare. They’ll sell a ton simply by virtue of the awesomely cool scorpion badge.

  • Thanks Gabe! Not having driven one, I won’t wax eloquent about dynamic differences. I have sat in one though, and I think your analysis is spot on. “Small Premium” is a tough pill to swallow still and I think Fiat is playing the “Small Less-than-Premium” game with an emphasis on character and flair.

  • Anonymous

    Another top review and my sentiments exactly. More to the point than the Winding Road review though that was well balanced also.

    After seeing the Mexican built 500 at the LA Auto Show it seems cheaper build wise that the Abarth I saw and drove over in Holland 2 years ago? I liked the Abarth edition and had thought of maybe changing cars when they arrived in California in the next few years but found the Mex car pretty crappy. I’ve heard rumors that the Abarth will be an import from europe? Can that be true?

    For some reason the plastic that bothers most in the interiors in both cars doesn’t bother me as I think most cars are pretty much the same inside quality wise, crappy.

    I think, as you so aptly stated, it’s a fun little around town car and I love Franks styling though it’s really more of a scaled up original version than Frank’s MINI was. I wonder if the Italians will follow the BMW/MINI and go larger and have 50 variants like a 500 SUV, I hope not and I think not. I’m sticking with the ’04 S, for now unless I win the lottery and can afford a Ford GT…;-)

    Viva La Cinquecento!

  • Anonymous

    Whether we like it or not, people are still going to cross-shop the two.  Those who are interested in performance will still buy a MINI, but those who aren’t (the blue-hairs, 16-year-old girls, etc.) will look at the 500 and go: it’s fun to drive, cheaper, and just as cute.

  • Anonymous

    After having owned an R50 and R53 I will consider the Abarth as my next choice, assuming the experience is a major step up from the base 500. Mini will really have to hit the third gen out of the park (no warmed over R56) to keep my business.

    • Ggcadc

      Agreed, though I’m years off from a new purchase. The “feel” in the r56 is not what I would call sporty, instead I’d say it’s quite a Lot like the analysis of the 500 gabe wrote, with the exception of power. Mini should be all about driving experience, they seem to be getting back to that slightly with the coupe.

      • Volkan

        Really? Did I miss a review mentioning that the Coupe handled any different than the R56?

      • I can’t quite believe that a normal driver would drive a MCS and not call it “sporty”. The amount of complaining people do on this site and elsewhere that refers to a 10-15% reduction in the steering feel is a bit insane. It may be relevant to you and me but it’s certainly not relevant to the masses. And if you think the 500 has anyway close to the steering feel of any MINI, you must be driving the old one.

        • Volkan

          As I mentioned in the R53/R56 re-post, R56 is certainly a sporty hatch for a first time MINI owner (someone from the “masses”). Almost all the criticism comes from R53 owners. For a non-enthusiast, R56 is a better buy compared to a late 05/06 R53.

        • Versus

          Wait, so if you own an R56 you’re not an enthusiast? There are a lot of factors that go into buying a car and timing is one of them. I understand “feel” (whatever that is, as I’ve seen no definition given when it’s brought up) is important, but warranty seems to factor into a buying decision as well.  Not everyone who is an enthusiast is a grease monkey, which may make an R56 a better buy. 

        • Anonymous

          I agree the  second gen car is a better all around choice for most people. I would likely be driving one but could never get past the styling changes. It just leaves me lukewarm from it’s bug eyed front end to the too large tail lights with the fat chrome strips to its SUV like ride height. Every time I see an 02-04 R50, especially with the holey 15″ wheels it just makes me smile.

  • Hurry_downs

    What about the rear seats in the Fiat? I actually use my back seats in my MINI to transport normal sized people short distances with out too much complaining. This doesn’t look possible in the 500.

    • They’re around the same.

    • I am 5’4″ and I felt that the back was a little too cramped compare to my R53 and you have to lift the head rest or your shoulder blades would really hurt. of course my back area is pretty cramped too for my taller friends so I ask them to sit in the front if possible.

  • Anonymous

    Any feel for what real world MPG might be like?   With the economy being what it is and gas prices spiking all over the place one would think that MPG would also factor into todays car buying audience.

  • Aurel

    Spot on review Gabe. I pretty much agree with everything. After the test drive I had (during which I really wanted to like this car as I was thinking of possibly getting one) I went and grinned driving my Clubman. The Fiat is by no means a drivers car.

    I also wonder where they will take this a few years down the line. It already looks a bit dated.

  • Anonymous

    I think the styling exercise of the 500, as a modern interpretation of the classic cinquecento was extremely well done. But what you can’t get around is the original car was ugly, homely cute at best. And if you successfully mint an homage to an ugly car, the result is another ugly car. 

    I’ll give it cute, not much more. I’d buy one if I end up down and out. It would not be my first fiat.

  • MINImofo

    The other day I saw my first one on I-95. It looked scared to be on the road with so many other big vehicles. Talking about ugly……

  • Dr Obnxs

    Pretty good review. I’m starting to see more and more where I live. Buddy bought one and he couldn’t be happier.


  • Test drove it, I didn’t like the handling as much but yes styling is very good on those Fiats. For some odd reason I felt like it was on stilts compare to my R53

    • Aurel

      I think that “stilts” feeling is pretty common especially going into a test drive from a MINI. The feeling is really pronounced. Others may not experience it.

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  • Irmiger

    I, for one, am super excited to see this car come to market. It only proves the point that America is ripe for more small cars, plus it’s first year sales figures (which I’m sure will be great) will move us closer towards bringing even smaller MINIs, like the Rocketman, to our shores! 

  • Harry Dill

    Obviously, the car has distinctive European flair all its own. Although I am not keen on the design, I can appreciate it and may, over time, grow to like it. The Abarth may present us with some pleasant surprises when and if it becomes available. Neither car are, or can be expected to convincingly mimic MINI performance or design. 

    FIAT will build its own niche by appealing to a different set of consumer sensibilities. It is comparable to comparing a Vespa to a Ducati. They’re both European, and for that matter, both Italian, but neither (just like FIAT) could be considered eligible talent for a starring role in  “The Italian Job” — only MINI could perform that role! 

    Hey, if you are seriously intent on exhibiting classic European panache I would recommend going French with a Renault C2V or Citroen SM — even The Mentalist has chosen to pilot the “hydraulic headache” AKA Citroen!

  • Harry Dill

    MINI’s greatest market competition will continue to be Volkswagen. The new Golf R, GTI, and even the  newly redesigned Beetle will interject new “weaponry.”  When, and if, the long anticipated Scirocco and Jetta coupe make landfall, not to mention a successor to the potent R32, a formidable arsenal will be unveiled fully capable of engaging all combatants — including the MINI JCW and Coupe. Thus, MINI has every reason to bless us with a GP successor … and better sooner than later!

  • Harry Dill

    The 500 could use a little more “junk in the trunk,” to add dimensionality (and sensuality) to its inclined “plain” derriere. Sir Mix-a-Lot would never approve! Nothing an artistic plastic … excuse me, metalsurgeon couldn’t capably execute with aplomb … better yet an English roller! Perhaps a Ben-Hur/”Chariots of File”  limited-edition will ensue to ignite our eternal flames of passion for fashion. MINI will remain unscathed by this FIAT, but who knows what’s down the Autostrada a few kilometers away.

    • Anonymous

      Mr Dill… I have to disagree with your view of the styling, I think it’s quite nice and very Italiano inspired La Dolce Vita in looks. The Abarth I drove 2 years ago in europe had all the junk n trunk I need as like most that drive a MINI don’t do track time and just want a stylish and good handling vehicle to drive. 

  • Christ2

    Echoes pretty much my sentiments.

    Only thing I’d add is the driving position–it feels impossibly high in a car this small, more like you’re sitting in an SUV than a subcompact.  And I thought the MINI rode high…

    Interior isn’t in the same league from a quality standpoint, but it still looks reasonably well done and fits the car nicely.

    One thing I really like is where the stick shift is placed–right next to the steering wheel. Beats the MINI there….

    The Abarth should be interesting.  Clarkson loved it, basically compared it favorably to the MINI.

    • Anonymous

      If I remember a Top Gear interview with Michael Schumacher correctly, he drives a 500 Abarth as his daily driver.

  • Evan

    The 500 is a fine little car for the price. It has an awkward drivng position that may be better w/a telescoping whee. And the back seat is smaller than the MINI in practice with a more upright back seat making a larger boot.

    On the road at lower speeds it’s nice with a pretty good little engine. The issue comes with full out acceleration and then the moment the speedo creeps past 65mph it becomes way too light while the MINI hunkers down and keeps charging for another 25-30mph with autobahn stability.

    I don’t know if the 500 has the staying power into a second gen like the MINI has. The new Beetle will show us a bit of that.

    In the end, it’s pretty good for what it is, but no where near a MINI even for the price savings.

  • bfxenon fiat hids

    cant wait to pick mine up!  here is some more Fiat stuff:

    • Really?

      Funny how it seems every other thread on MF goes back to the “R53 is superior to the R56” topic. I completely concur. The R53 was the real deal. A true euro enthusiests car. The R56 is an imitator designed to sell to the masses.

      The R53 is dead. Long live the R53.

      Hey Mini! It’s been 5 years! And people are still pissed!! Wake up and make the third gen Mini a return to form!!! Do you ever read/listen to what people are saying?

      Fat chance. When the Abarth hits, Mini drivers will be making the switch.

      And everyone please stop saying “spot on” if you’re not British. So lame.

      • MINImofo

        Spot on, Pip pip cheerio…..

  • Harry Dill

    While a few of us may be concerned with the outside chance that the 500 could siphon off some MINI affection and sales, most would agree the impact will be, at best, negligible. Therefore, unfortunately, the 500 will not provide the shot in the wallet that MINI needs to spawn a few truly high-performance versions, in the tradition of the GP. 

    Flashback to ’03 and consider the mid-engined Renault Clio V6 Turbo. It was, and remains, a phenomenal car — visually and under the bonnet. Perhaps the Abarth will provide a measure of required stimulus but it may not as convincingly as the old Renault. The car really looked aggressively exquisite, particularly in French racing blue. Give us a MINI Challenge clone for the road. It’s all we need, at least for now! While you at it, how about a 21st century Moke as well.

  • Anonymous

    I just have to lay down one more critique of the design of the 500. The original Cinquecento was a rear engine car, and that primary platform configuration guided the overall design. The small hump in the rear of the car that accommodated the engine, the lack of a radiator grill on the nose of the car – form followed function. It was never pretty but it certainly made sense.

    The redesign departs from the original format rear engine/rear wheel drive, now its front engine/front wheel drive. Yet the visual cues, and the massing of the car attempts to follow the original rear engine. Car. Fiat made other cars badged the 500 and Cinquecento in the interval since the original car was discontinued, but they a product of their times. If the mechanicals were consistent with the original, I could understand this as an evolution of the original car. Instead it just feels like a shallow facade job, a superficial reference to the original car. It just does not look or feel well designed. Its a nostalgic one-liner, taking a swipe at what they see as a successful formula for other brands. 

    • Dr Obnxs

      Wow Lav, let us know what you really think! 😉

      And the New Beetle made due with a swap in engine and drive wheels, and has been doing just fine.

      Anyway, it’s a fun car at a good price. We’ll see how the sales numbers work out….


      • Anonymous

        Actually I fault the new beetle with the same thing. They did not even design a bespoke chassis, and put it on a golf. It does not mean the 500 and the bug would not be successful, it just means that the underpinnings of the design work is weak. Most people don’t care, but for me it just has less integrity. Think of the feeling you get when you see a car from the late 70s that had one of those padded fabric covered roofs that was supposed to look like a convertible but it was not. Or wood grained vinyl siding. Flesh colored socks. Thats the feeling I get from the beetle, and the 500.

        • goat

          Wearing flesh-coloured clothing of any kind should be made a ticketable offense.  🙂

      • Totally agree with lavardera.

  • I dont particularly have an issue with the 500 – it looks okay from a cuteness standpoint. I would buy a Mazda 2 or a Fiesta before buying a 500. They have just as much style yet the build quality and materials used on the Fiesta appears much better than on the 500 (not to mention the options available are superior, eg. Sync). I have sat in a Fiat studio, picking away at the things I didn’t like. This was mostly triggered by noticing rock chips on the Fiats hood which had been touched up – in the showroom. After spotting this, my cuteness and positive feelings faded fast. I was immediately drawn into picking out all the flaws, Things like the rear fender wells extruding to the outside edge of the body, for example.

    Bottom line is that after seeing the 500, it reinforces the feeling that I got a ton of value in my Clubman S from a quality standpoint. I believe my R53 is better built as well, and at over 100K It drives exactly as good as the day I picked it up. 

    I see the 500 as technologically advanced as a Mk4 golf 2.0 – Both have twist beam rear suspension (like the MK1 golf did in the 70’s), Both have a 5 speed manual, both have side airbags and relatively equal safety. Both come in a small variations of colors and interior options, and both have spin off variants (Golf 20th AE, Abarth SS, etc). Both are made in Mexico (with exception to some Brazilian Mk4’s).

    I think this is going to be a fad mainly because it is cute – not because it is good. Much like the fad cars of the past (beetle, PT cruiser)

  • James Gaston

    Sold and serviced by Chrysler is my big negative for the Fiat. I have to wonder if it won’t eventually be an orphaned import with parts-availability and depreciation issues. I have more confidence that BMW will stand by the MINI brand. 

  • Harry Dill

    The FIAT ads are looking good and will likely generate enough buzz to make bucks. I don’t think having Chrysler behind the brand is necessarily a negative aside from the fact that Chrysler has a history of acquiring a spinning off unsuccessful brands. Is its Chrysler’s fault or the brand itself? I’ll leave that for the jury of commentators to decide. I do think that having the car Made in Mexico may impact consumer perception just as it has with Volkswagen’s Jetta and Beetle models out of Puebla.

  • Robin

    Good review Gabe: I had an automatic(6spd) sport rental in KC recently and put 450 miles on it over a weekend;  Cute car, basically quiet a good ride as you noted; NEVER plan on trying to get out of a passing lane quickly if you have right side traffic and a Tractor Trailer truck is bearing down on you because, as you noted, step on the accelerator and basically nothing really happens; you  could get squashed! One auto downshift adds virtually nothing to an accelerative escape; two gears down gets the revs way up but little else, so, only own this car to be different, be seen and generally admired, and to drive around leisure driving roads or cities.  BUT gas mileage is nothing to buy the car for as I averaged 25 mpg for my stint, while my new Jetta TDI sport wagon is currently averaging 42 mpg  over all types of driving and what a great practical vehicle this is, with a great ride also, for only 7k more! Bricklin 333 

  • goat

    My take now that I have seen these popping up around Ottawa, Toronto, and Southwestern Ontario is that they are the “Hipster’s Ride of Choice”. 🙂  I do love the styling, so certainly not condemning it on looks (I prefer it greatly to the mk2 MINIs, for example).  What I mean is that the Fiat 500 seems to fit the Hipster ethos… chic retro design, a good sound system, a comfortable seat and – this is important to neo-Slacker Hipsters – comfortable ride and leisurely performance. 

    It is not (yet) the “Driving Enthusiast’s Ride of Choice”. The MINI still wins you over if you like to rip away from a light or thread a series of bends together. Will the Abarth and essesse versions be enough to change this? At very least they should turn the car into a Hot Hatch competitor. Speaking of which, the new mk2 New Beetle is a far more sporting proposition and also will be cross-shopped by many looking at these cars.. it’s almost a Junior Audi TT (first-gen) in many ways. 

  • Jpcompetello

    I just drover both a regular (not S) mini and the fiat 500 lounge. True, the lounge is a bit ‘softer’ than the sport, but probably not much so. I do not believe there is any way to compare the two—just different!! And so it goes, what satisfies one does not do the same to the other. As to price point, the Mini with essentially the same equipment cost more than $5,000 than the Fiat.  So, again, just your choice—get the checkbook and write it out for what you want.  You only live once!!!!


    • This is simply not true when you look deeper. The MINI is better engineered with a higher tech set of technologies that are actually based on the BMW 1 and 3 series. Fiat does a great job making the consumer saving features appear the same.

  • A_alex_2

    I guess you all own mini’s and I feel that you have to justify somehow why you paid more for your car. When the abarth comes out, then start making your comparison.

    • Fled.

      Fiat is made in Mexcio, by Chrslyer. MINI is made in the UK, by BMW. Its a no brianer which one is better.