Expert Reviews

Big Guy, Small Car Test Drive: 2015 Fiat 500 Turbo

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

Small cars are enjoying quite the run these days, even in we-love-our-big-sedans-and-SUVs-North-American markets.

Small cars are efficient, their styling often breaks free of the jellybean mold and, above all else, they’re inexpensive. I mean, when you can provide a brand new car for less than 10 grand, as Nissan does with the Micra (that’s Micr-A, not Micr-O), well, you’re going to get some looks.

So that’s all well and good. Trouble is, while manufacturers can control the build of a small car, it’s harder for mankind to control the build of a person. So what about the taller folk? They want efficient and affordable motoring just as much as anyone else, but can it be had? Can taller people really live with the new small urban utility vehicles, the roadsters and the hatchbacks that continue to proliferate manufacturer’s lineups?

With that question in mind, we’re launching the Big Guy, Small Car series, whereby our resident big man, Dan Heyman (all 6-foot-3 inches of him) sees what spending a significant amount of time behind the wheel of these vehicles is all about.

When it comes to small city cars, the Fiat 500 is kind of the quintessential vehicle of the type. Yes, the Smart ForTwo’s been around for longer, but the practicality, driving comfort and even the powertrain options it provides have been usurped by the 500. Not to mention the 500 is a revival of an Italian original that helped popularize this microcar segment along with the original Mini.

The car seen here is the Turbo model; you can also get a base 500 with a 1.4L naturally aspirated MultiAir powerplant. Or you can go the other way and opt for the Abarth version, with its Fire TurboJet turbo four-banger that’s good for 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, which compares to 135 hp and 150 lb-ft in the Turbo model seen here.

That’s the nitty gritty. But what we ask here today is: while vehicles like this are great city options on the surface, are they really livable? Do you have to be a pint-sized person in order to drive a pint-sized car? That’s what we’re here to find out in this, the first entry in our “Big Guy, Small Car” series.

The knee test

Do you have to duck a lot? As in, would it be easier if you had a police officer forcing your head downwards as you’ve seen on so many police vids?

Let’s start with interior ergonomics.One of the first things to look for when entering a small car (or any car, for that matter) is just how easy it is to hop in. Do you have to duck a lot? As in, would it be easier if you had a police officer forcing your head downwards as you’ve seen on so many police vids?

That’s the first thing.

The second is – and this is a biggie – will you smack your knee or hip on an emergency brake lever or centre console once in? You spend all this time making sure you don’t hit your head, so that once you clear the plane of the roofline, you’re in the clear. That’s when the potential for a knee smack is increased.

Unfortunately, the Fiat 500 is a culprit in this regard. The way the gear lever is mounted high as part of the centre stack is great when reaching to swap a cog, but the housing also sits a little higher, right there in line with your knee. The first few times I stepped in – both during this test and previous tests I’ve done on the 500 – it was a direct hit; I swear I left a dent in the thing.

Here’s the thing, though; once you’re in, it’s quite comfortable as the centre stack comes to a nice taper towards the floor, and legroom isn’t as compromised as you’d think after damaging the cartilage in your knee. Not bad.

While the shifter is nicely placed, I do take issue with the steering wheel’s lack of reach adjustment. It tilts, of course, but if you suffer from even slight T-rex syndrome (long legs, shorter arms), you’re forced to move the seat farther away from the wheel (manually; there’s no power option). I do like the fact that a height adjustable driver’s seat comes as standard on the 500 Turbo, though. A boon for taller folk. As is 1,034 millimetres of legroom and 956 mm of headroom up front (909.1 if you skip the sunroof) and while the Smart has a (very) little more room up front, the 500 also has back seats, and those passengers get 805.1 mm of legroom, which is only about 40 mm less than what’s found in a Toyota Yaris.

Our tester also came with optional leather seats finished in “Rosso”, which do well to compliment the authentic-looking (if not authentic sounding) exterior “Mopar Italian Stripes”, which are a $675 option but look very cool—I mean, how Italian is that feature? I almost felt like I had don a striped shirt and straw trilby like a Venetian gondolier. The seats add a level of luxury that dilutes the fact that you’re driving a tiny city car.

The back seats, meanwhile, are functional. In an effort to push them to their limits in the comfort sense, we put someone as equally long-legged as your intrepid reporter. He was surprised by just how functional and livable it was back there. It’s a little dark, sure, but the fact that you can really fit four people in there eats the Smart’s lunch in the capability department.

The Hockey Bag Test

Even better, you don’t even have to fold the seats in order to fit an adult-sized hockey bag back there, as you can see from the photos. And that’s even with the optional ($995) Beats audio system whose subwoofer eats into trunk space.

Of course, you’ll have to use the back seats for hockey sticks and the like, or if you’ll want to fit a teammate’s bag in there. Which you can do, too, because when those rear seats are folded, there’s a generous amount of space back there.

The Rest

For starters, out tester didn’t feature the cool tachometer-speedometer dial-within-a-dial from other 500s; ours had the customizable digital cluster that is very modern looking, if not as cool in its retro-ness as the standard setup. Plus, the fuel and temperature gauges either side of the main display are a little tough to read.

That “toughness” is nothing when compared to the patience required to navigate the infotainment system. The group of buttons mounted right of the main infotainment display used to navigate the various menus are a little unclear; there are arrow buttons, but it takes a while to learn just what each button does. It’s a lot of guessing and testing.

The sound system it controls, however, is a good one. In addition to the subwoofer, the Beats audio upgrade provides six speakers and has been developed to work especially within the shape of the 500’s cockpit. Satellite radio, meanwhile, comes as part of the $795 Comfort/Convenience Group, which also adds heated front seats, immobilizer and filtered A/C.

Let’s hit the road

So, hockey bag loaded and long-legged passengers aboard, how does the 2015 Fiat 500 Turbo drive?

While that power figure is not huge, remember that you only have to move about 1,000 kilos with it, which is no trouble for the little turbo’d MultiAir.

Our car was specced with the optional six-speed Aisin automatic transmission, which adds an extra cog to the standard manual’s five.

Peak torque arrives at 2,400 rpm, and maintains until 4,400, providing brisk acceleration from a variety of speeds. To its credit, the transmission doesn’t get in the engine’s way, the two main powertrain elements working in harmony to have you zipping along in no time. The fantastic, warbly exhaust note through the chrome-tipped exhaust outlet is icing on the cake, even if it may be a little loud for some drivers. It’s not full of pops and bangs on the overrun like the Abarth’s is, but it makes its presence felt, that’s for sure.

Normally, I would do my best to make a case for the manual transmission in a car like this, but I’m having a little trouble doing that now. For starters, I’ve driven 500s equipped with the manual, and it’s not quite as snickety-snick precise as I’d like and even expect from a zippy, sporty little roundabout like this. There’s also the issue of one less ratio.

Further, when you’re in a car that excels in the city like this one does, you want more ease of use and it’s hard to honestly argue that having to work a clutch provides that.

Having said that, do you think Fiat could at least have given us the option to manipulate the ratios ourselves with wheel-mounted paddles? I can’t make an argument for a manual in a car I normally would, but at the same time, I can make an argument for providing a set of paddle shifters, which is something I don’t usually care too much about. It’s a fun car to drive, this, and there is a manual mode, so why not add to the fun with a set of paddles?

Having said that, if you will be spending a lot of time in the city, you’ll want to be careful with your throttle modulation; while the 11.4 L/100 km fuel economy figure we saw isn’t bad, you’d expect a small car like this to sit closer to the 10 mark. At least you can run it on 87 octane gas, although Fiat does recommend 91.

If an automatic transmission makes for less driver fatigue, then ride quality is issue #1 when it comes to both driver and passenger comfort.

When you look at the 500, its tall roof, pinched wheelbase, cutesy styling, well, you’d think it would hop like a pogo stick from road imperfection to road imperfection. It should, but it doesn’t.

Front suspension duties are handled by a set of MacPherson struts (with sport-tuned shocks and special lower control arms) and the rear suspension is a twist-beam setup, which deserves a lot of credit for the very good ride quality. At the same time, it allows the 500 to be agile in the corners, while everyday bumps that I swore would rattle my teeth were absorbed with gumption by the 500. It rides like a much bigger car than it is.

All that being said, the car needs to be capable in town – probably above all else for most buyers  – which means a tight turning radius and a good view out. The turning radius is no problem, but the big C-pillars are hard to miss during shoulder checks.

So if you’re of taller ilk…

The bottom line is that the 500 works. It’s smartly packaged, it looks good, has just the right amount of performance in Turbo form and can handle the bumps and bruises involved in city driving.

Of course, the purpose of this review is to determine whether or not taller folk get to experience all that cool stuff, without having to drive with their head hunched forward and their legs 45 degrees apart.

As it turns out, those folks should have no problems treating the Fiat as their daily driver. You may not be able to tell from looking at it, but Fiat has done their Small Car, Big Guy homework with this one.

NRCan Fuel Consumption (City/Highway): 9.6/7.3 L/100 km
Observed Fuel Consumption: 11.4 L/100 km

3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance

Chevrolet Spark
Mini Cooper Hatchback
Nissan Micra
Scion iQ
Smart ForTwo
Toyota Yaris

Model Tested 2015 Fiat 500 Turbo
Base Price $21,395
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $30,370
Optional Equipment
$7,180 – Leather trimmed Rosso bucket seats $850, Customer Preferred Package 2FT Comfort/Convenience Group $795, 6-speed Aisin automatic transmission $1,495, Power Sunroof $1,200, Mopar Italian Stripe Package $675, Beats Premium Audio System $995, TomTom Navigation $495, 16-inch Hyper Black Aluminum Wheels $300, Rear Park Assist $375