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2012 Fiat 500 Performance Review

Note: This performance review was created when the 2012 Fiat 500 was new.


Performance: 7.6

The base engine in the 2012 Fiat 500 makes 101 horsepower, which is one of the lowest horsepower ratings of any compact car on the road. However, some test drivers think the 500’s miserly horsepower rating matches its petite frame nicely. The Fiat 500 Abarth, which is FIAT’s equivalent to the Mini Hardtop S and John Cooper Works models, is significantly more powerful, but many reviewers still say it has performance limitations. Regardless of the model you choose, there’s no doubt that the Fiat 500 is a great city car because it is tiny enough to weave its way through tight spaces.

  • "It's oh-so-easy to fit into tight parking spots, a huge perk in the urban jungle." -- Motor Trend
  • "We're happy to say the 500 Abarth picks up the pace substantially, tempering the car's cuteness quotient with a measure of mean and adding track-day agility to its dynamic résumé. The net result is a scrappy little hot hatch that seems ready to challenge the Mini John Cooper Works on pretty even terms." -- Car and Driver
  • "On the road, the 2012 Fiat 500 drives much bigger than it looks. Each example we drove felt solid, with body motions that are well controlled and a suspension with a firm character." -- Autoblog
  • "Interstate trips are manageable, but you won’t want to make a regular habit of them." -- Cars.com

Acceleration and Power

All 2012 Fiat 500 models except the Abarth have a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 101 horsepower, which is significantly less than the Mini Hardtop’s 121 horsepower. This engine can be paired with either a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic. Despite these meager powertrain specifications, test drivers generally agree that the engine and transmissions are smooth and that the available power matches the Fiat 500’s small size. The engine creates enough power for city driving, though some say that the Fiat 500 struggles when traveling at highway speeds.

For the best performance, reviewers recommend the Fiat 500 Abarth. It has a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine making 160 horsepower and is only available with a five-speed manual transmission. Test drivers think this engine brings the FIAT to life, especially when they press the Sport button. Still, some say the turbocharged engine doesn’t have as much spunk as the engines in the Mini Hardtop S and John Cooper Works models.

According to the EPA, the Fiat 500 averages 30/38 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 27/34 mpg with the automatic. The Fiat 500c, which comes standard with the automatic transmission, averages 27/32 mpg.

  • "The five-speed manual transmission shifted smoothly. The clutch had a good balance; it felt firm without feeling too heavy." -- Cars.com (Fiat 500c)
  • "The turbo four blats to life with a distinct and characterful exhaust note (fitting, given that aftermarket exhaust kits were one of the Abarth company's earliest and most successful products). The exhaust is quite loud under acceleration but the noise fades almost completely when you're just cruising. … To access the turbo engine's full 170 pound feet, you need to hit the Sport button on the dash; it not only firms up the steering and alters the throttle mapping as in other 500s, it also lets loose the final 20 pound-feet of torque." -- Automobile Magazine (Fiat 500 Abarth)
  • "Start making bigger demands on the Fiat and it quickly turns into a slow car. Low-end grunt is nonexistent, as the car's 98 pound-feet of torque doesn't come together until 4,000 rpm. However, this is easily the smoothest 1.4-liter engine you've ever met, and if you rev it a little (OK, a lot) and stir the gears frequently, commuting is a piece of cake." -- Inside Line
  • "Rowing the fun-to-shift manual transmission can't overcome the fact that the 500 has just 101 horsepower. It's enough to keep up with city and suburban traffic, but requires determination to meet highway merging demands. With the automatic transmission, speed builds sufficiently for adequate acceleration. The transmission shifts smoothly, and downshifts for more passing power are usually quick." -- Consumer Guide
  • "The car feels a little unstable over 80 mph, as if every gust of wind wants to push you into a ditch." -- The Detroit News (Fiat 500c)

Handling and Braking

The 2012 Fiat 500 has noticeable body lean and a bumpy ride. Reviewers also say the 500’s handling can be too stiff and that it doesn’t hug corners as tightly as they would like. However, they are impressed with its strong brakes. For better handling, test drivers suggest using the Sport button or purchasing the Sport trim or Abarth model.  

  • "It's as drift-happy as the Cooper, with steering that's nearly as quick-witted and brakes that feel just as strong." -- Cars.com
  • "With a short wheelbase, skinny little tires, and a relatively tall profile, it's easy to feel as if the 500 were cornering closer to its limits than it is. Fortunately, the same suspension that makes the 500C feel a bit tippy during aggressive maneuvers also delivers a surprisingly comfortable ride even on lousy roads." -- Car and Driver
  • "Pop and Lounge models soak up smaller bumps quite well, but larger impacts can produce a jolt that bounces the body around. The Sport model's firmer suspension tuning and larger 16-inch wheels (versus 15s on the Pop and Lounge) give it a firmer ride, and most bumps can be felt throughout the cabin, though there's limited harshness." -- Consumer Guide
  • "The steering is rather devoid of feel and numb on center, but press the Sport button on the dash and the 500's steering firms up pleasingly." -- Edmunds
  • "It's actually quite fun, though you must be sure to brake in a straight line or it can be a bit darty under heavy braking." -- Road and Track (Fiat 500 Abarth)
  • "Handling is a little stiff, the ride is choppy - this car is, after all, seven inches shorter than a Mini Cooper convertible - but it is never intolerable." -- Orlando Sentinel (Fiat 500c)

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