The 2013 Fiat 500 Turbo is the best chapter in an otherwise forgettable book - a compelling version of a flawed car.
Introduced for 2013, the new Turbo version of the Fiat 500 hits a middle ground between the base 500 and the rowdy Abarth. It's a strong version of the Fiat hatchback, which was introduced in early 2011, but before you pop the Prosecco on your Italian not-so-supercar, you'll want to consider the limitations.
The 500 Turbo is the fifth version of the 500, which now comes in Pop, Sport, Lounge, Turbo and Abarth editions. Though it's priced between the Lounge and Abarth, the Turbo's features align more closely with the non-turbo Sport trim
Bite Without the Bark
Like the regular and Abarth versions, the 135-horsepower 500 Turbo takes off modestly. Once its turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder overcomes some initial turbo lag, however, acceleration feels lively and the car scoots along. The drivetrain's peak torque, 150 pounds-feet, comes from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm, and it suits the Fiat better than the regular 500's; that car's peaky, naturally aspirated 1.4-liter makes do with 34 fewer hp and 52 fewer pounds-feet of torque. The Turbo redlines 400 rpm earlier, at 6,500 rpm, but it rarely feels necessary to wind it out that far.
The Abarth scurries more quickly thanks to its 160 hp and 170 pounds-feet of torque, but it's accompanied by a blatty exhaust that will have the neighbors shaking their fists faster than you can say "noise violation." There's no blat from the Turbo, where Fiat showed welcome restraint.
The Turbo shares the Abarth's heavy-duty five-speed manual and 3.35:1 axle ratio. Some editors found the shifter clumsy; others liked the hefty throws and oversized leather handle. The gearing feels short enough that we didn't want for a six-speed manual - except on the highway, where the drivetrain buzzed loudly above 3,000 rpm. An extra gear also may have helped eke out better gas mileage than the Turbo's modest EPA-estimated 28/34/31 mpg (city/highway/combined). That's the same as the Abarth despite having less power, but it's ahead of the 29 mpg (combined) Mini Cooper S. It falls short of the base, manual 500's 34 mpg combined, as well as other entry-level hatchbacks, including the stick-shift, turbocharged Chevrolet Sonic (33 mpg). Another pocketbook nuisance: In the Turbo, as in other 500s, premium gas is recommended for full performance.
The Turbo shares suspension calibrations and a similarly firm ride with the 500 Sport, though it's better than the brittle sport suspension in Mini's Cooper and Cooper S. With just a 90.6-inch wheelbase, Fiat's setup sometimes responds erratically to expansion joints and other bumps. The 500 Turbo's highway isolation trails the Abarth, whose unique selective-damping shock absorbers filter out broken pavement better. The Turbo bobs up and down. Other entry-level hatchbacks manage to settle into a highway groove reminiscent of bigger cars - the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic and Toyota Yaris come to mind. The 500 just isn't there.
It's no handling champ, either. The linear brakes and engaging steering hint at agility, but the top-heavy 500 still tends toward body roll, and limited seat bolstering heightens the sensation. One editor preferred the Turbo to the Abarth, which he deemed too top-heavy for its sporty pretensions, but no 500 can emulate the Cooper's go-kart fun. At least the Turbo improves on one area: the turning circle, which shrinks from the Abarth's SUVlike 37.6 feet to a city-friendly 30.6 feet - the same as other 500s.
Suffice it to say the Turbo has the same issues: B-pillars that barricade the view over your left shoulder, plus overstuffed seats with flimsy adjusters that left some editors awkwardly positioned against a steering wheel that didn't telescope. The tiny backseat sits ahead of an afterthought of a cargo area. The wipers have but a single intermittent speed (in a $22,350 car!) that's too fast for light rain. The optional heated seats have but one stage: scorching. The power window switches flank the gearshift, too far apart to operate at the same time with one hand.
A new, optional Beats stereo thumps out clear enough sound to overcome road and wind noise, but editors agreed the bass underwhelmed despite a trunk-mounted subwoofer. The radio has tiny buttons instead of simpler dials to surf stations and change volume, and the 500's standard Bluetooth streams only phone calls, not music. The latter convenience is fast becoming ubiquitous among new cars.
Inventive styling remains a hallmark of the car, with enough creativity to help you overlook stretches of old-school, subcompact-grade materials. The shelflike dashboard leaves plenty of room to stretch out, and there are strategic portions of door padding where knees come to rest.
Value & Safety
The 500 Turbo starts at $20,200, including destination. That's an affordable $2,000 upgrade over the similarly equipped 500 Sport and a worthwhile stopping point before the rambunctious 500 Abarth, which runs another $2,500 beyond the Turbo.
Standard equipment includes keyless entry, 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, a USB/iPod-compatible stereo, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise and audio controls. A moonroof, heated leather seats, Beats audio, automatic climate control and a plug-in TomTom navigation system are optional. Check all the boxes, and the Fiat 500 Turbo tops out around $25,000.
Top crash-test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have earned the 500 status as an IIHS Top Safety Pick, but IIHS has yet to conduct its latest small-overlap frontal test on the car. In crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 500 earned four out of five stars overall. Seven airbags, all-disc antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are standard.
500 Turbo in the Market
The Fiat 500 ended 2012 with nearly 45,000 sales. That's better than the Toyota Yaris and Mazda2, and it's laudable for a brand that hadn't been in the U.S. market for nearly three decades. The Turbo should help those numbers, even if it steals Abarth customers - as it should. But I'm concerned that Fiat keeps adding editions to the 500 stable without fixing some of the car's inherent issues. Absent a number of much-needed improvements, I suspect all the variants under the sun won't prevent the 500 from being a flash in the pan