Photos by Kevin Miklossy
Seemingly a sticking point for most North American media, there is no way to look butch in the 2013 Fiat 500 Turbo. Front on, the 500 has the disarmingly cute visage of an insolent groundhog. The profile is less Cinquecento, Fiat’s iconic post-war microcar, than upside-down man-purse. Butch can be an overrated hangup though, especially when cute can get away with murder or, at least, driving like it’s dodging gunfire.
The Fiat 500 Turbo scampers into the Italian company’s line just below the mad-as-a-sack-of-scorpions 500 Abarth performance model. Sporting a detuned version of the Abarth engine, and a downgraded exhaust system, the 500 Turbo develops 135-hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. The output is 80+ percent of the Abarth’s 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque punch, without having to live up to the boy-racer model’s over stickered and badged napoleonic complex. The result is the 500 Turbo is a feisty and cheeky city car, injecting 60s-heist movie joy into every little drive.
Toughing up the 500 Turbo’s looks there’s an aggressively styled bumper, 16-inch alloys, side skirts, rear diffuser and blacked-out head and taillight surrounds. These are hints of masculinity, like vestigial chest-hair in a V-neck tee.
Inside, the fashion forward design carries on Cinquecento Italian nostalgia. There’s a body-colour dash panel, touches of plasti-chrome, and a great round combined speedo and tach with central digital display. Those dials may not be the most instantaneously readable, but they certainly don’t short the Fiat of flair. The Turbo package also adds a leather wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, giving a quality feel where it counts most – the driver’s direct contact with the car.
Beyond the wheel, the caliber of the interior’s materials degrades somewhat. The inner door panels are predominantly easily scratched hard plastic. The optics of the windshield are poor, causing distortions. The Turbo’s leather fronted bucket seats, a $800 option, were already puckered and stretched after about 6000 kms of press use. Nor are the seats particularly comfortable for longer outings – the driver gets height adjustment while the passenger sits high, with their head inches from the roof. Your right knee, rests against the center console which the gear-shift is mounted atop of, impinging on driving comfort.
The ’50s-era Cinquecento was transportation designed to mobilize civilian post-war Italy. Utterly cheap to purchase, drive and maintain, roughly four million swarmed the world from 1958 and 1975 in short firefly lives. It was not high style or chic, other than in an inherent joy of mobility sort of way — it was as cheap and cheerful as box-store skinny-jeans. Here playing the retro-style card hard, Fiat looses the plot for North America.
The 500 Turbo’s interior would be perfectly acceptable in a truly cheap and cheerful city car, but at a $20,000 base price the Fiat is out of the running. Optioned out as our tester the $25,750 asked is within striking distance of the better built, more comfortable, and similarly retro-Mini whose bone-stock price is $26,515.11. Arguably, even the most basic Mini interior is a better place to spend time. Looking better bang for the buck? Ford’s Fiesta Hatchback “Titanium” (a Ford-ism for loaded to the teeth) prices to $19,149 if you splurge and throw in the Premium Sport Appearance Package. Is the Fiesta as interesting? No.
Redeeming the Fiat, literally at every turn, is the driving experience. Plug the iPhone into the Beats Audio premium sound system’s USB (a $995 option). Turn up the Daft Punk. Stir the gear-box and enjoy the 500 Turbo’s agility, marvelously quick and direct steering, and engagingly revvy engine.
The 1.4L four-cylinder with turbo pulls strongly from 2,000 rpm on, and comes into its own by 3500RPM with a growly and whine from the exhaust and turbo respectively. Power maintains, with the speedo chasing the tach in a game of cat and mouse around the dial, until the output flattens just before the 6,800 RPM redline — nicely facilitating a shift.
Does the 135-hp output sounds meager? Remember the Fiat 500 Turbo only weighs 1,124kg. It startles like a cat off the line, scampers past highway traffic, shoots out of corners and is utterly predatory of holes in traffic. Having lifted the Abarth’s short ratio five-speed gearbox, the only time you’re out of puff is on starts below the 2000rpm threshold. The pedals are light, the clutch easily arcs to the floor, the brakes pilfered from the Abarth are sharp to nearly oversensitive, and misbehaviour cooked into the DNA. You will need the forgiveness a car this cute engenders from other road users.
Buying the Fiat for economy? Your good intentions will nicely maintain the roads to Hell. The engine whirs, the turbo spools out the giddy-up, and the 500 Turbo’s engaging nature translate to a heavy right foot. Yet, thrash through the revs, and you see “reasonable” fuel efficiency. Our tester reported 8.3 L/100km (28mpg) during, ahem, “aggressive” mixed city and highway use – passion has a cost.
The 500 Turbo is equipped with the same sport suspension upgrade as the 500 Sport model as well as the Abarth’s lower control arms. Pushed hard through sweepers and twists, you experience a good amount of body roll. Yes, it feels like you’re driving. Relatively compliant suspension soaks up road noise for the 90% of your drive time when you’re not abusing the right pedal. Ok, maybe 80%… Would you believe 70? Sixty, then?
That is the kicker. The Fiat 500 Turbo is an outright giggle to drive, a factor that confounds value’s cold analytics. The joy of driving a simple, light, grippy and gutsy car overshadows the character creating quirks.
The Fiat 500 Turbo asks us what price do you put on a grin? How much is a chuckle worth darting through traffic? That snicker on taking the unsuspecting Mercedes off the line? The chortle turning off the traction control and chirping the tires? The cabin’s materials, don’t reflect the Fiat 500 Turbo’s true value in making the drudgery of the days drive better. And, judgements of masculinity? Others have to catch a glimpse of the Fiat 500 Turbo darting through traffic to make those. Better, be truly fashion forwards and give butch a miss while unleashing a holy terror of darting traffic maneuvers and frolics.
Three-snaps and away, then. Be yourself and smile.
Pricing: 2013 Fiat 500 Turbo
Base price: $20,995
– Leather-trimmed bucket seats – $800
– AC with auto temp control – $195
– Heated front seats – $400
– Security alarm – $175
– Beats premium audio group – $995
– TomTom Navigation with Blue&Me – $495
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $25,750