TechnologyTell

Our First Fiat: How We’d Upgrade the Fiat 500 Sport’s Sound System

Sections: Aftermarket, Car Audio, Infotainment

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2013 Fiat 500 Sport Photo Shoot 041

The 2013 Fiat 500 Sport’s head unit was simple enough and produced good-qulity sound that did not clip out the standard speakers until the very upper reaches of the volume range — but we’d kind of like to play with some aftermarket installations in a Fiat 500 based on our experience, just to see how much better we could make it. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

The factory head unit in our Fiat 500 Sport tester was respectable, but you know us. We think the tiny Italian Stallion would be fun to customize with aftermarket sound gear.

The Fiat 500 Sport we tested came with an AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio that also had an AUX input and a USB jack housed out of sight, out of mind in the glovebox. Its speakers were decent and, unlike some economy cars, not horrendously over-driven, as distortion didn’t creep in until the highest volume settings. That was admirable. The Nissan Versa Note SL, for example, is similarly priced to the Fiat 500 Sport, yet its sound quality is far worse. (More on that in a review coming soon!)

But there were things I would prefer to change, were I buying a Fiat 500 of my own. The head unit itself is devoid of knobs. In general, I find twist knobs more user-friendly and less distracting than up/down and left/right buttons on any radio. A knob is easy to find with your eyes on the road — far easier than finding the desired button, in my opinion — and making adjustments with a knob is usually far faster than having to push a button rapidly and repeatedly. There’s always the option of holding the button down, but typically, factory head units don’t move too quickly when this is the method of input. The Fiat 500 Sport’s head unit was no exception in that regard. Press and hold either of the volume buttons, and the volume slowly and steadily moves in the chosen direction — a fact I learned when I absentmindedly left the radio cranked up one night and then scared my two-year-old son the following morning when blaring music filled the cabin upon starting the car. That’s why they put a mute button between the volume up and volume down buttons, I guess.

Another small annoyance: I couldn’t navigate my test USB stick by folder. Pressing the up and down arrows on the button pod to the right of the head unit did not switch folders as it has in some other simple head units I’ve experienced. The left and right direction arrows would change tracks back and forward, respectively, just as they would when listening to a CD. Once I reached the end of one folder in either direction on my USB stick, the head unit would load the next folder. This was the only way I could move from folder to folder — by tracking through the entire 16 gigabyte stick, track by track. (And just so you know: My USB stick is organized the same way my songs used to be organized in iTunes — by artist name, then by album name, then by track order.)

There were rocker switches on the back of the steering wheel. One side controlled the volume, and the other would switch tracks forward or backward. I liked these controls better when going down the road because they were easier to manipulate without taking my eyes off the road ahead. However, when making a turn — for instance, pulling into the bank drive-thru — the angle of the wheel would make operation cumbersome and required me to go back to the head unit controls. Again, I was thankful for that mute button.

So how would I upgrade the head unit? I’ll reiterate my preference for knobs. I’d install something that had at least a volume knob, if not a two-knob setup. Many aftermarket head units that feature two knobs have the left knob dedicated to volume control, while the right knob is a multifunction piece that can tune the radio, advance through tracks, or control a cursor/highlight icons on the head unit’s menus. One such unit I think would suit me (and work well with the European flair of the Fiat 500 Sport) is the Blaupunkt Toronto 420 BT. I don’t know whether the Blaupunkt would integrate with the steering wheel controls for Bluetooth phone, voice commands, and the aforementioned volume and track advance, but I don’t think I’d miss the volume rocker switch or the track advance rocker switch if I had a two-knob setup that would allow for easy volume and track selection. And if the Bluetooth phone controls didn’t work, the head unit still has provisions for selecting Bluetooth handsfree calling as well as streaming voice directions at a user-selectable volume relative to any music that might be emitting from the unit. Having said all that, there’s a good possibility there’s an adapter out there that would allow retention of the steering wheel controls’ functionality.

Finally, while the stock speakers were respectable, as I said, some matching aftermarket speakers would likely take the sound quality up a level. I wouldn’t go too crazy. I might install a mild amplifier to push six new drivers to replace the Fiat 500 Sport’s original six-speaker setup. While a pair of small subwoofers would easily turn the tiny 500 into a ghetto blaster, it would also eat up scant space inside the car — and I just happen to be the kind of guy who values the space more than the bass. If you’re the exact opposite of me, you might be interested in this setup that pretty much eliminates the cargo area behind the second row seats, but gains you two 12-inch subs.

In the end, the Fiat 500 Sport proved itself to be a muscular little car with a robust chassis and drivetrain, but I felt like the factory radio let it down. That’s why I think it would be fun to build up an audio system as slick and powerful as the MultiAir turbo engine and install it into this car.

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

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