It's a car, and it's a lifestyle.
We had a chance to drive two different variants of the 500: A $16,000, bare-bones 500 Pop with no options and a five-speed manual transmission, and a fully loaded 500c Lounge convertible with automatic transmission and an MSRP around $26,000.
Though both cars look like they drove straight out of a Rick Steves special, the Toluca, Mexico-built 500 is made especially for driving in the US. The sheetmetal looks the same, but US-specific safety features and more powerful engine choices are reserved for the New World.
If it's driving excitement you want, a 500 equipped with a stick shift proves that you don't need horsepower to maximize the grins. Even the non-turbo Pop we drove was a real thrill to scoot around a city, darting around traffic and parking nearly anywhere. If you live somewhere less congested, you may find the base 500 wheezy on freeways. Step up to a Turbo, or the tiny-car-big-engine Abarth, and you'll have no problems merging, but every 500 sure feels small alongside Chevy Suburbans—let alone tractor trailers.
With an automatic, the 500 is a different car entirely. Sluggish, requiring very little driver engagement, it's impossible to "point and shoot" the car into openings in traffic. If the stick shift makes the 500 feel like a manic Roberto Benigni, a cinquecento equipped with an auto box is about as nimble as Vatican bureaucracy.
Its gas mileage is good, but a combined 29 mpg for the 500c Lounge with an automatic and 33 mpg for the stick-shift Pop isn't anything to write home about—especially for a minicar. And inside, this car sure is mini. We took two adults who'd previously expressed interest in the car and put them in the back seat, and they'd immediately dismissed the idea of ever getting up front. As for cargo, fahgettaboutit. The Pop has a little bit of room behind the seats, but the 500c's roll-down top precludes a hatchback, and there's just a tiny hole for a trunk.
There's one really cool feature that no other car out there has: A driving instructor. Plug in a USB drive into the 500's included port while you're driving, and install Fiat's EcoDrive software on your computer. When you're done driving, plug the USB drive into your computer, and EcoDrive will review your driving habits and tell you how to get better fuel economy. Otherwise, tech is nearly nonexistent. There's Bluetooth and an aftermarket nav system that fits into a receptacle on the top of the dashboard.
Of course, many buyers won't care about tech, performance, or fuel economy. This bug-eyed car is cute as a sloth, and the 500c's roll-down top lets in a ton of fresh air, albeit while blocking most of the vehicle's rear view. But it's priced at a premium compared to, say, a brand new Chevy Spark or a used Civic. This is a car built for style, and it's got more of that than horsepower or legroom.
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