Our First Fiat: When the Fiat 500 Sport Is Hot, It’s Hot

Sections: Chassis, Powertrain

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2013 Fiat 500 Sport Photo Shoot 021

A twist-beam axle riding on coilovers isn’t exactly cutting-edge, but the Fiat chassis engineers did it about as well as anybody ever has, in my experience. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

Overall, I had mixed feelings about our Fiat 500’s fit and finish — but the things Fiat got right, they got really right. It’s like Jerry Reed sang: “When you’re hot, you’re hot.”

Of course, the next line of that song was, “When you’re not, you’re not.” To that end, there were some things in our Fiat 500 Sport test car that immediately betrayed the car’s econobox bloodline. The interior door handles felt like chintzy, lightweight chromed plastic because that’s what they were, and left me wondering how long they would last before snapping off in my hand after a few seasons of intense heat and bitter cold leave the plastic brittle. Similarly, the HVAC panel’s controls felt too light to the touch, with too little resistance between clicks of the setting knobs. The dashboard and door panel plastics were all hard as a rock and hollow-sounding when pecked, and the carpet was hewn of the finest mousefur.

Be that as it may, there were things the Fiat 500 Sport got right in ways that few if any other $20,000 cars do. The MultiAir 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine was an absolute hoot, pulling strongly from about 2,000 RPM all the way to the car’s over-6,000 RPM fuel cutoff. Its quiet clatter at idle was almost diesel-like, though unnoticeable unless the windows were rolled down, while its turbo whoosh was addicting once underway with a healthy kick of throttle.

The Sport suspension that comes on the Fiat 500 Sport was firm enough to allow for plenty of hoonery without jarring you to death on streets pocked with manhole covers. Turn-in was crisp with little body roll — and the steering felt even better when the dashboard button marked “SPORT” was pressed, as it firmed up the resistance felt in the steering wheel and gave the Fiat 500 Sport even more go kart-like manners. Fiat’s chassis engineers are to be commended for making this solid of an effort with a fairly basic suspension setup that included an old-school twist beam rear axle sitting on coilovers. Four-wheel performance disc brakes would stop the Fiat 500 Sport in a major hurry, while the antilock brakes and stability control systems kept the car from feeling like its stubby rear end would come around under hard braking — something I wish I could have said for the Nissan Juke NISMO, which felt squirrelly under hard braking more than once.

2013 Fiat 500 Sport Photo Shoot 022

The Fiat 500 Sport’s five-speed manual transmission had a decent clutch feel and logical gear ratios, though it could be improved with a heavier, more solid shifter feel — and perhaps the extra cog the Fiat 500 Abarth gets. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

The five speed manual transmission, which the Fiat 500 Sport’s build sheet lists as “Heavy Duty,” was a solid effort, too. Clutch engagement was easy to modulate once I figured out how to turn off the hill start assist function that seemed to stay active too far into the friction zone for my liking, causing me to jackrabbit roughly half my starts while the function was engaged. The gears’ rev spacing was logical enough, if a bit wide for my tastes.

It says a lot that I, being used to the M5OD-R1 five-speed manual in my Ford Ranger pickup truck, could easily heel-toe and actually get the rev match correct on multiple 5-3 and 5-2 downshifts I attempted. When I got it right on my first try, a 5-3 shift heading into a sharp turn I know well, I was almost shocked that I didn’t either over- or under-rev. Top gear cruising on any divided highway with a 60+ MPH speed limit is going to be a 3,000 RPM-or-higher affair, but in a car as tiny as the Fiat 500, I’m okay with that. It keeps the sweet MultiAir engine in its sweet spot, negating the need to drop a gear when doing long hill climbs or passing slower traffic.

I do have some complaints about the transmission, though. I would like it if the knob were more weighted, as it felt like it had almost no weight behind its throws. I’d also like it to feel tighter — something I suspect a good shift bushing kit might help a lot. In most respects, I felt like the six-speed close-ratio manual transmission I experienced in the Nissan Juke NISMO a couple months ago handily beat the Fiat 500 Sport’s stick in terms of feel. However, the Fiat’s stick had more adequate spacing between the gears. I never missed a 2-3 upshift in the Fiat 500 Sport, whereas the Juke NISMO had me doing 2-5 shifts all too often thanks to the too-tight pattern spacing. If I could combine the pattern spacing of the Fiat 500 Sport’s stick and its pleasing clutch dynamics with the weight, tighter feel, and one extra cog of the Juke NISMO’s, I think I’d have just about the best manual transmission available today on any front-wheel drive car, including a good many that cost much more than the Fiat 500 Sport’s as-tested MSRP of $20,800.

So yeah, the Fiat 500 Sport has some cheap-feeling parts inside, and its technology includes a navigation system that seems like an afterthought in some ways (more on that later), but in the fundamentals — the blocking and tackling, so to speak — Fiat got a whole lot right here. For giving us tech heads such a solid drivetrain and chassis upon which to build, I applaud the folks at Fiat.

Disclosure: Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.

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