I had a little time to kill today and I had been really interested in the Fiat 500 for a while and since I was near a Fiat "Studio", I thought the timing was ideal. The showroom was completely devoid of customers, so I gave the fact finding mission a go, and went for test drive.
Now this dealership doesn't do public road test drives, they have their own track. It's a great way to hide any ride quality problems, since the track is always glass smooth, but it does give you an idea of the low speed handling, since you can really get on it and it has a few nice bends. It's the same track where I drove the MR-2 Spyder a few years back, if you remember that.
Impressions of the car:
I drove a used model, with about 15,000 miles on the clock, so it still felt like new. It was a Prima Edizione model, individually numbered; one of the first 500 to be imported to the US. I took a look at a similar model in the showroom, and was impressed. The trunk offered ample room with the seats folded down and you could actually shove one small person in the back seat if the passenger were willing to slide the seat up a little. I wouldn't put too people in the back unless I really disliked them. I didn't do much dash stroking, so I couldn't tell you if the window switch feedback was positive or how tight the tolerances are in the panel fitment, but overall it looked nice. It wasn't as willfully quirky as the Mini is, but it was a good looking interior.
Getting into the car was a really new experience. For how small it is outside, there was a lot of room inside. It felt like getting into a midsize sedan. Interesting how comfortable it felt. If you were blindfolded and put in the car, you'd never imagine how small it really is. It felt fairly light and airy in the cabin, which I didn't expect either. From the outside, it looks like the beltline is pretty high, so I was expecting a more Camaro-like experience. But it wasn't bad at all.
Like I said, it was on a private track, about a quarter mile long. The pedals were a little light, but not as bad as I thought they would be as I tested out a car in the showroom. The pedal box, however, was pretty tight for my size 12s. It's not a deal breaker by any means; I think I could get around it and it would only really be annoying in heavy traffic where you have to work the clutch a lot.
I took off and was immediately impressed by the get-up-and-go. This is as close to a Fiat Panda 100HP that we're going to get and I have to say, on the track, it felt really damn good. It was punchy and revved eagerly throughout the range. The track was fairly tight, so I never got out of 3rd gear (and even when I shifted up out of 2nd, I had to shift back down almost immediately). I got through the esses quickly and hit the next few corners, getting a feel for the car. Then on the second lap, I really got on it. I gave the salesman a few pucker moments and I had to give him a talk because I could tell how tense he was getting. I don't think he's ever had a test drive like this one and likely won't forget it any time soon.
Pushing through the esses again, clipping the apex and really getting into the powerband, I was really happy with how tightly the car handled. There wasn't much roll; it turned in hard and gripped really well. It transitioned from right to left eagerly and was a blast through the S-curves. I was really, really surprised, since it felt like you were sitting really high, I was a little worried that I'd get that seasick-like feeling I get when I'm in an SUV or taller car that's soft and being driven hard, but it didn't give me any of that. The steering rack felt a little slow; a quicker ratio wouldn't go unnoticed, but overall, this was a really fun experience. It lacked a little feedback in the major controls, but it wasn't like it was completely numb. The steering weighted up decently well, although pressing the sport button didn't really yield any noticeable changes. But, sooner than expected, I was 5 laps in and I realized I didn't want to stop. I just had a smile on my face as I went on and did 5 more laps.
It was really, really fun to drive. I was so surprised at how quick and immediate it felt, how tight it was through the corners, and just how much it wanted you to keep going. This is really a very fun car to drive, at least in this limited situation. The engine never felt lacking, but I can imagine it being wheezy on the highway. I would absolutely love to have a car like this as a garage-mate to my Z4.
If there were one thing I found odd, it was how odd I didn't find the car. It drove like a car. I didn't feel the soul and passion or anima e passione that I keep hearing about it car reviews. It felt like a car. It wasn't a tin can like I worried a really small car would feel like either. It felt substantial. It was like driving a small Volkswagen with lighter pedals. Not that this is a bad characteristic, or anything. I was expecting to be swept away by just being in the thing, but it was the driving experience that really got me into this car. This car was so enjoyable to drive.