By Tom Crosby
Fiat returned to the United States market in 2011 and has seen only minor changes since then. The spiffy base Fiat 500 hatchback remains mostly the same for 2014 (the passenger seat gets extra headroom.)
However, joining the lineup this year in a sales-boosting effort will be a lengthened and taller four-door Fiat 500L seating five, with a more powerful engine, but retaining Fiat's cute, maneuverable, mileage-conscious DNA. Our 2014 Fiat 500 sports hatchback test drive was one of four returning 500 models - the others are a 500c (convertible), 500e (100% electric) and amped up 500 Abarth.
Fiats can be customized and color-coded to satisfy a buyer's fancy. Our sport hatchback test drive had nearly $4,000 in options, including red exterior/interior paint, air conditioning, heated leather-trimmed ivory-colored seats and ivory-colored dashboard and door trim, satellite radio, a 6-speed AISIN transmission and a dashboard mounted navigational TomTom with Blue&Me handsfree cell phone hook-up.
The TomTom stalk can be removed from the dashboard and the cell-phone sized TomTom used as a carry around hand-held device. One unique feature was the pleasantly lucid radio with premium speakers that continued operating after the engine was turned off. It required turning off before leaving the cockpit.
Standard features include traction control, daytime running lights, curtain side airbags, tilt steering wheel and rear wiper washer. The Italian-made Fiats flit about urban streets and squeeze into motorcycle-sized parking spaces.
On the highway, however, it lacks get up and go, (merges in particular) but Fiats can hold their own once underway. The ride is comfortable for a truncated wheelbase, lightweight car riding on 16-inch wheels linked to a tight but not too stiff suspension system.
Front seats offer ample space; rear seat space accommodates only children comfortably; average sized adults will be cramped. Rear seats fold flat, creating enough cargo space for outfitting an extended vacation for two or golf bags on a daytrip.
Under hard acceleration, engine whine invades the cabin but not at cruising speeds. Drivers view a speedometer and tachometer housed concentrically with a center information screen. Push button climate and audio controls are well marked and easily reachable. The USB port and stereo input jack are in the glove compartment.
The sloped hood sports a chrome bar positioned between headlights and fog lights above a honeycomb chrome grill and the roof remains tall with the lift gate sloped downward and outward.
Fiats get called "cute" a lot, deservedly so.
LIKES: Cute, handling, mileage, cabin controls
DISLIKES: Rear seats, power
BOTTOM LINE: In the highly competitive small car market, Fiat deserves consideration
FIAT 500 SPORT HATCHBACK
Base price w/destination fee: $18,300
Vehicle weight: 2,434 lbs
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
Length: 139.6 inches
Width: 64.1 inches
Engine: 1.4 liter, 4-cylinder, inline
Horsepower: 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm
Torque: 98 ft.-lbs. at 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA Rating: 27 mpg city and 34 mpg highway
Range: 10.5-gallon tank, premium recommended
Performance: 0-60 in about 10 seconds
Tom Crosby is a former journalist and communications director for AAA Carolinas. He has been reviewing cars since 1996, and has been active in traffic safety issues for more than 30 years.