FIAT 500 Rental Car Review

FIAT 500 When I got to the airport in New Orleans this week, I was quite surprised to learn that my “mid-sized rental car” was in fact a FIAT 500. Since my car last week was a completely uninspiring Nissan Altima with “Pure Drive” (whatever that means), I thought I’d give it a try, especially since I hadn’t driven a FIAT since 1985. Here’s my (totally unbiased) review of the rental-car version of the FIAT 500: It stinks.

This car has 1.4 liter multi-air inline 4 cylinder engine. Multi-air is FIAT’s variable intake valve technology used to improve the fuel economy of the 101 hp engine. (The car should be called the “Mila Quattrocento” instead of the “Cinquecento”, no?) Unlike the original 500 cc engines, this one has enough grunt to get you up to and beyond legal speed limits. That’s the good news.
side rear view
The bad news is that once you’re there, the tall, slab-sided shape makes the short wheel-base car very susceptible to cross-winds. Visibility is surprisingly bad for a car this small. The seating position is more mini-van than MINI cooper. And the split outside mirror is just confusing.
A-pillar
The front sloping wind shield moves the very thick A-pillar forward and blocks much of the view from someone pulling into your lane from the front. The thick B-pillar blocks most of the view over your left shoulder.
interior
The interior fit and finish is good; the materials feel solid and not cheap; and the interior lay-out is very clean. The tachometer within the speedometer is confusing. The information screen in the center of the binnacle is all your really need even if the controls are not very intuitive. Leg room was good and the interior comfortable.
rear
The rear seats seem to offer about as much room as the MINI, but the space to get in and out seems tighter.
boot
Luggage room is about the same as the MINI.
engine compartment
Under the hood is a master class in packaging, though it’s not a friendly place for the do-it-yourselfer. Surprisingly, the FIAT 500 got an overall rating of “good” from the Institute for Highway Safety. There must be some serious crumple-zone engineering going on there. One thing to note: don’t sit too close to the steering wheel. The crash test dummy registered a significant injury to the head and neck as the head went through the airbag to contact the steering wheel.

The one thing that did remind me of the FIAT of old was the strap on the rear deck. It has a sort of “you want a strap, here’s your damn strap…” quality to it that reminds me of 1970’s Italian craftsmanship. Another odd feature was the size of the brake rotors and calipers. They appear to be the same size front and rear. That either means that the rears are seriously over-sized, or that the fronts are seriously under-sized. Let’s hope it’s the former and that FIAT figured it was easier to stock one part than two.
strap
FIATs of the 1970’s were notorious for coming pre-rusted from the factory. Quality of workmanship was spotty, panel fit atrocious, and reliability non-existant. The exteriour design of the cars (or at least those that carried over from the 1960s), however, was glorious. This car is just the opposite: Build quality is excellent, materials used and fit is equal to or above it’s price segment, and the car has the speed and safety features demanded of a modern car. The design, however, is insipid. There is not a good angle at which to view this car. It seems as if it were designed by a committee whose members were not allowed to talk to each other. FIAT has some wonderfully designed contemporary cars. This isn’t one of them. For those enthusiasts counting on a long-term return of FIAT to the US, this one was a swing and a miss. Your experience may vary.

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