2012 Fiat 500 Driving Impressions

The three Fiat 500 models, Sport, Pop, Lounge, are quite different in the way they drive. Same power, but different brakes, handling and transmissions.

Let's start with the Sport, which is truly sporty, with a firm ride, thanks to stiffer springs and shock tuning, firmer brakes, and quicker steering. It all adds up to a wonderfully responsive car, although the ride isn't as relaxing as the Pop or Lounge, especially over bumpy roads or in the city. But if play is what you like, you'll have a blast in the Sport.

The 5-speed gearbox is a joy to shift, with a throw that's short, quick and secure. Its linkage is by a cable, a method that generally is less sharp, but in the Sport's case, we felt no loss. We banged shifts left and right, even hard downshifts into first, and the gearbox loved it as much as we did. The forward lever location is ergonomically natural, and that adds to the neatness of it all. The clutch is light. We never missed, never fumbled, and always got the heel-and-toe, as well. It doesn't often happen that nicely, out of the box. It's that Italian touch.

The Sport's red brake calipers can be seen through the 16-inch wheels in a color called Carbide and make a statement that's backed up by braking performance. Stopping in the Sport is significantly more responsive than in the Pop and Lounge, which is good when you're driving in a sporty manner, but it requires a soft touch around town. The Pop and Lounge do that soft touch for you. With 10.1-inch front and 9.4-inch rear rotors, and so little weight to bring down, getting stopped in time is never a worry.

The 6-speed manual automatic transmission is available even on the Sport, and it too is a transmission you can play with (although we think if you're going for a Sport in the first place, go all the way). The lever location is the same in the automatic as it is in the manual (although the knob isn't), so it feels like a stick shift. The Lounge comes standard with the automatic, and the Pop works well with it, as a compromise. There's a sport mode for the automatic transmission that sharpens and delays the shifts nicely, without too much override, so you'll still have a sporty little car, with the manual automatic Chrysler the Autostick. As they have the right to do, having invented sequential manual shifting of the automatic transmission in 1995, with the Dodge Stratus.

In the Lounge, the first thing you notice is how much looser and easier the steering is, then the same with the ride, and the brakes. In the city, this is good. The more relaxed steering makes the whole car feel a bit bigger, but the fixed glass roof in the Lounge has something to do with that, too.

The 1.4-liter engine is the same on all models. It features a reinvention of the cylinder head that's called MultiAir technology, to get 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque. MultiAir is a complex system that drives the intake valves by oil pressure actuators, triggered by electronic control: it's truly continuously variable valve timing. One big downside is that premium fuel is recommended, although not required, but we still wonder: how much power is lost with regular fuel, and how much will engine longevity be affected? So we'd use the premium.

Chrysler estimates 30 City/38 Highway miles per gallon, but it might be better than that; we got 34.2 mpg, revving it high and running it hard.

Our day-long test took place over winding and uncrowded roads east of San Diego (in the Sport), and around the city in the Pop and Lounge.

Passing on two-lanes, in sport mode, there was enough acceleration to work with. Shifting gears to stay in the powerband makes it fun. It's a momentum machine. It comes on at 4000 rpm and redlines at 6800, a point that's unfortunately hard to judge because of the difficulty of reading the tachometer, especially the red numbers and lines over 6000 rpm. At least the rev limiter cuts fuel gently; the engine just flattens at 6800, it doesn't nose-dive.

One treat is that the engine feels like it's ready to shift at 5000 rpm, and it certainly can be shifted there and still maintain momentum, but it just keeps putting out for another 2000 rpm, pleasantly surprising you. Another pleasing aspect is that 80 mph in 5th gear is only 3300 rpm, and on level ground it glides fairly effortlessly at that speed. Quietly too, thanks to hydraulic engine mounts and extra sound deadening material.

Ninety miles per hour in 4th gear is still only 5000 rpm. Do the math and that's a theoretical top speed of 153 mph in 4th gear; fat chance, but the sweet engine fools you into thinking it might just be capable.

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