2013 Fiat 500 Turbo Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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With the Fiat 500 well into its third year of North American sales, the diminutive Mexican-built Italian city car has already managed to prove that style definitely counts for something, quickly catching up to the arguably more practical Toyota Yaris and Mazda2 in terms of sales, and indeed passing them in terms of total North American sales for 2012 and the first couple months of 2013 (Canadian consumers have proved a little more egalitarian, with the Yaris outselling the 500 here in 2012, and the Mazda2 taking the lead in early 2013, leaving the 500 in a solid second place amongst the three).

In order to keep the shine on the 500, Fiat has been busy introducing new variants. The variants getting all the press are the raucous Abarth edition (introduced for 2012) and the upcoming four-door Fiat 500L, but meanwhile a more powerful turbocharged version of the original 2-door 500 has been introduced rather quietly into the lineup for 2013.

The 500 Turbo's low-key introduction is matched by its Q-ship appearance: This is no Abarth with its scorpion badging and big twin exhausts. Instead, the 500 Turbo takes a stealthy approach. Sure, it's got the Abarth's slightly more prominent front fascia (the better to fit in the turbo bits), and like the Sport it has a rear spoiler and nice 16-inch cast alloy wheels, but beyond that it wears almost nothing to give away its go-faster status - no turbo badges, no "500T" script to echo the cabriolet's "500C" … nothing.

Personally, given the 500's decided leanings towards "cute," I'd actually appreciate a bit of advertising on the car that says "watch out for the teeth," but I suppose there are two arguments against this: First, the lack of badging makes the 500 Turbo all the better for sneaking up and surprising drivers in Mini Coopers or naturally-aspirated Fiats. And second, it might be a bit much to warn of the car's teeth when said teeth aren't especially sharp. The turbocharged 1.4-litre engine, which develops 135 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, definitely gives the 500 a bit more kick and makes it a real hoot to drive, but it still takes about 8.5 seconds to scamper from 0-100 km/h, which is sprightly, sure (and about two seconds quicker than the regular 101-horsepower 500), but it's not exactly fast.

If you want a fast Fiat 500 you'd best choose the Abarth addition, which gets to 100 km/h in just over seven seconds, but also costs $5,500 more than the naturally-aspirated Sport model and $3,500 more than the Turbo, and comes complete with a loud, blatty exhaust, uncompromisingly firm ride, and a surprisingly large turning circle due to its sport suspension. The 500 Turbo, then, is a nice compromise that gives you most of the Abarth's extra oomph (the Turbo's engine is actually a detuned version of the Abarth's engine) plus the Abarth's brakes, five-speed manual transmission (yes, that's your only choice), and beefed-up drivetrain components, but with a more forgiving suspension, quieter exhaust and smaller price tag.

On the road, I found the 500 Turbo to have pleasantly sharp reflexes and a zippy, fun-to-drive nature. With its short, narrow wheelbase you get more weight transfer than you might in lower-slung cars, which translates into a certain amount of body roll in corners, but also translates into a marvelous ability to modulate between understeer and oversteer simply by adjusting the throttle to pitch more or less weight onto the front wheels. The bigger Abarth brakes are borderline grabby but unfadingly powerful when bringing the car down from speed.

Despite its increased performance potential, the Fiat 500 Turbo still gets fairly good official city/highway fuel consumption ratings of 7.1 / 5.7 L/100km. In the real world my test car showed a long-term average of 10.9 L/100km, though it was barely broken in with only about 1,000 kilometres on the odometer, so some improvement would likely be seen after a couple thousand more kilometres. Due to my manic driving style, which consisted entirely of short-hop city driving with full-throttle launches from pretty much every traffic light (did I mention that the 500 Turbo is a lot of fun to drive?), I actually managed to use even more fuel than this, averaging about 11.3 L/100km. On a litres-per-smile basis, however, I achieved exceedingly good economy.

Thanks to its small size the 500 Turbo really does make an excellent utensil for the slice-and-dice of daily city driving. It's short enough that at one point I was able to squeeze it in between two vehicles at a pair of adjacent parking meters, although while this proved convenient enough for a quick stop I did move the car before dinner because I wasn't sure which meter I should plug money into, or whether indeed it was a legal parking job.

Despite the car's small size I was able to fit four people inside, none of whom is less than 5'7" tall, for a trip downtown. It must be admitted however that the 500 is definitely best suited to carrying two people, because legroom is at a real premium when you press the back seat into service.

Up front, the seats are reasonably comfortable and roomy (at least when you don't have a passenger behind you requiring you to scoot your seat forward). My test car was fitted out in optional black leather upholstery, which gave it a bit of upmarket appeal, but I'd prefer a little more bolstering to hold the driver and passenger in place around corners.

The interior design strikes a nice compromise between retro-funky and mainstream-functional, and I really rather like the body-coloured dash panels and circle/semi-circle theme to the switches and controls. On the other hand, some of the plastics are a bit, well, plasticky, and I'd prefer traditional volume and tuning dials on the audio system instead of fiddly buttons (speaking of fiddly, I also found it took quite a contortion to operate the instrument lighting controls, which are tucked in behind the steering wheel).

While on the subject of interior annoyances I should also point out that the Fiat 500 has possibly the world's most piercing seatbelt buzzer. I wouldn't mind this (I'm a staunch believer in seatbelts) if only it would wait a few seconds before screeching at me so I could get the car started and then get belted in (if you see Fiat 500 owners doing up their seatbelts before starting the engine, now you know why). I'd also prefer the stereo to stay on until you open the door, rather than shutting off with the engine (you can turn it back on again easily enough, but still…).

Perhaps the biggest issue with the 500's interior, however, relates to the width and placement of the B-pillar. It's likely this is needed for strength (and in that case it must work nicely, because the 500 earns Top Pick safety accolades from the IIHS), but it almost completely blocks the driver's ability to see over their left shoulder. Fiat fits the 500 with a split wide-angle driver's side mirror to compensate, but even after a week with the car I hadn't fully adapted to relying 100 percent on the mirror, and I missed not being able to do a quick shoulder check before changing lanes. This issue is likely to bother some drivers more than others, but I'd wager it's something Fiat will attempt to address if and when they update the car.

Given its unique blend of high-fashion style and four-seater city car size, the Fiat 500 occupies a rather unique niche in the automotive marketplace. It's certainly bigger and more practical than, say, the Scion iQ or Smart ForTwo (try shoehorning a couple of extra friends into one of them!), but on the other hand it relies entirely on its charm and good looks when going up against more practical competitors like the Toyota Yaris and Mazda2. Perhaps the 500's most direct competitor is the Mini Cooper, which makes good historic sense since the two cars were direct competitors back in their first-generation days. Measured by this yardstick, the 500 represents compelling value, with a starting price for the naturally aspirated Sport model ($20,590 including destination fees) that's some $5,000 cheaper than the base Mini Cooper (the 500 Pop is even cheaper at $17,590, but less directly comparable).

For those who like that kind of value but don't like the idea of being blown away at the traffic lights, the Fiat 500 Turbo represents the perfect upgrade, coming in at $22,590 including destination fees, which is still well below the Mini, but now a half-second quicker at the traffic lights. My test car also caught up to the base Mini in cost, adding to the sticker price with the leather upholstery ($800), powerful and clear-sounding Beats audio system ($995), plug-in Tom-Tom navigation system ($495), Sirius radio ($325), automatic climate control ($195) and heated front seats ($400) for an as-tested price of $25,800 including destination fees. Still, with those goodies the 500 Turbo is not merely reasonably quick, but also very nicely equipped. Bella!

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, Fiat, 2013, 500 Turbo, $10,000 - $19,999, $20,000 - $29,999, Subcompact,

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