Fiat just can’t seem to catch a break in America. The company made headlines back in 2010 heralding a splashy return to our market with the diminutive 500 hatchback.
Coming about 10 years (plus or minus) after the successful return of the VW New Beetle and the reimagined MINI Cooper, the new 500 was designed to hit the same notes: modernized retro styling that evoked the original with all mod cons included.
The automotive press went wild, showering the first U.S.-spec production models with awards. Reviewers from Consumer’s Digest, Travel & Leisure, ESPN, SEMA, Men’s Journal, GQ and Kelley Blue Book all gave the new Italian immigrant top marks. To date, the little 500 continues to be a media favorite. As the years have gone by, the 500 has received good marks for total quality and value. J.D. Power called the Fiat 500 the most dependable car in its segment in 2016.
But you won’t see all that reflected in the sales figures. 2012 was the first full year of availability and also the 500’s biggest sales year, with 43,772 cars sold. The next year, that number was 35,834. Sales have been stepping down substantially every year, with just 12,685 Fiat 500s sold in 2017. By comparison, MINI moved 32,232 Coopers last year.
There’s no sign of an impending turnaround, either. Fiat-Chrysler added a bunch of content and cut the base price by $2,000 for the 2017 model year, and sales still fell. Even in the stratospheric market for new cars over the past five years, people just haven’t been buying the Fiat 500.
Too many choices?
From the beginning, Fiat has offered the 500 in as many trims, versions and special editions as they could manage. Let’s break it down in a simple buyer’s guide to the major differences.
The basic Fiat 500 comes with a 1.4-liter normally aspirated engine good for 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque. Buyers can choose between a 5-speed manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic to drive the front wheels. The little cars come with four-wheel disc brakes. Trim levels have gone by different names over the years, but there’s always a base trim, a deluxe and a sport model.
Starting in mid-2011, you could get the 500 with a semi-convertible retracting cloth roof, badged as the 500c. There have also been several special editions, including a launch series, a pink-ribbon trim to support breast-cancer research, a “Stinger” performance model, a 1957 Cinquecento commemorative package, and even (God help us) a special edition made for GQ, with the magazine’s logo embossed onto the seatbacks.
The Abarth hot rod
A year after the initial introduction, Fiat brought out the Abarth performance version of the 500. This model features a turbocharged version of the 1.4-liter engine rated at 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque with an upgraded 5-speed manual gearbox. Or you get 157 horsepower and 183 pound-feet with the 6-speed paddle-shifted automatic. You can get the Abarth with a fixed roof or the ragtop.
The Abarth also offers a performance exhaust, high-flow air intake, upgraded brakes and a lowered sport suspension, as well as a nice, race-inspired interior treatment. With all that, you’re looking at a 0–60 mph time right around seven seconds, compared to 9.8 seconds for the base model.
In between the 500 and the Abarth, there was a 500 turbo model available from 2013 to 2016. The turbo split the difference between the base 500 and the Abarth with 135 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque. The turbo went away for 2017, but it’s back in 2018, powering the entire non-Abarth 500 and 500c lineup. There has also been an all-electric 500e since the 2013 model year, and it’s one of the better EVs on the market.
Will the 500 improve with age?
With any potential collectible, you have to ask if time is going to be a friend to this car. Consulting the SCM “Affordable Classic” Magic Eight Ball isn’t going to be much help on this question.
According to Fiat-Chrysler’s sales reports, 186,743 Fiat 500s of all kinds have been sold in the United States since 2011. Fiat-Chrysler doesn’t break that down by model, but with the Abarth starting at about $20,990, just $5,000 above the base model, let’s assume that the performance cars have a pretty healthy take rate.
Resale prices haven’t been generous. Dealers are getting about half the original sale price for three-year-old Abarths, and you can strike an even better deal on Craigslist. That’s actually good news for an Affordable Classic, because you can get a low-miles, well-kept, three-year-old Abarth for less than $10,000 without too much work. That’s a good deal for a car that’s fun to drive around town and doesn’t take up much space.
Fiat is still making Abarths and 500s, and shows no indication of retreating from the U.S. market. With a rumored redesign coming in 2019, interest in the brand could be rekindled and a collector market could develop for the older models. Are you ready to place your bet? ♦