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Fiat 500 Fit For Full-Timers?

Our new Fiat 500

Our new Fiat 500

We drove a new 2013 Fiat 500 over 1,000 miles this past week.  Some of you might wonder if it has the required towing capacity for our 6,500 pound trailer.  No.  I’ll get back to that later.  The Fiat 500 is a more economical means for travel between a couple of points than driving our big red truck.

picture of driver side of our red truck

Our big red truck

We usually drive the big red truck.  It’s a fully capable trailer towing machine and equipped with more amenities and electronics than any vehicle either of us ever owned.  Comfortable?  You bet.  Big?  A bit. Expensive to drive?  Definitely!  Last week we needed to make a road trip between Dayton OH and Charlotte NC. Luckily, Jim’s brother suggested we consider renting a car — both fun and economical, he said.

The quick rundown showed we would save over $50 on gas costs alone after paying the rental fees.  Little did we know we would be driving this cute little looker AND getting great economy. Including all costs we might have saved hundreds of dollars using this little gas sipper instead of taking our truck the 1,000 miles round trip.

Here’s a quick look at some statistics between this Fiat 500 and our 2006 Chevy 2500HD truck:

1,400 cc engine instead of 8,100 cc engine.
2,800 pounds loaded vs 8,000 pounds loaded.
Total interior volume 85 cf vs 140 cf+.
40 liters gas tank instead of 45 gallons.
41 mpg highway vs 15 mpg highway.
Horsepower and Torque ratings of 100/98 vs 330/455
Towing capacity of ZERO vs 16,000 pounds
$17,500 instead of $43,000.

Why are the dreamstreamrs road testing the Fiat 500? We needed to drive from Dayton OH to Charlotte NC and back for a weekend. This 1,000 mile round trip is almost all highway but still could cost a lot in our big red truck. The 4X4 truck’s 496 ci (8.1 liter) engine and 8,000 pound weight are all about capability, not economy. Jim’s brother suggested we consider renting a car — it’s fun to drive something different plus we could probably do it cheaper than in our truck.

The Enterprise rental agency in Centerville OH pulled our rental car to the front while we were inside doing rental paperwork Thursday morning. Their sample sub-compact is a Chevy Aveo. We were delighted to walk out and find a little white Fiat 500 smugly awaiting our approval.

Fiat Co brought this model to the states in 2012. We had read the early reviews with interest, hoping to find they had brought a true economy car. Too often, it has seemed to us, car manufacturers have withheld from the American market small gas misers because Americans “would not purchase under-powered cars”.

True to form, the reviews often cite the Fiat 500’s low power (98 hp) as the car’s major short-coming. Two interstate days of 500+ miles each and two days of urban driving proved the car has enough power to maintain highway speed despite our loading the boot fully with our gear for this trek.

This car is seriously cute inside and out. We didn’t measure but the Fiat 500 looks as though it would fit into the bed of our truck, maybe an Eddie Bauer extended Airstream, or surely into a Pan American Airstream.

controls nicely arranged

controls nicely arranged


The interior is fun and nicely arranged. Fiat’s designers cleverly decluttered the controls. Some of the functions were intuitive, where you might expect to find them and operating similarly to what we are accustomed to. The a/c compressor is switched on or off by pressing in on the fan control’s rotary switch. Smart, simple, and clean. Neat design.

A few controls were a little more interesting to fathom. Last night Jim accidentally stumbled on the headlight delay switch (on the hi-beam/turn signal stalk). The door locks by pressing the door latch into the bodywork. The seats recline and release for folding with a handle at the top corner of each seat.

Speaking of seats, we found the seats very comfortable for driving, but think these are small person seats. Tremendous leg room suggests tall sizes are welcome, but the seats are the narrowest we’ve seen in a car. The driver’s seat cushion easily adjusts up and down, nice for varying leg position.

Seating position is good. The driver’s arms are extended to reach the steering wheel, and all controls visible and easy to reach. Good visibility overall, particularly side and forward. The radio requires a little practice but worked well and sounded good through the six speakers.

The Fiat 500 is surprisingly quiet, smooth, and comfortable on the long stretches of interstate driving. We expected a rougher ride from a very short car. Handling doesn’t seem great, the car doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in turns. Maybe a different tires setup or (I hate to suggest) more power would improve cornering?

One of the greatest joys was hitting parking spaces with this little car. The mirrors are good and visibility at the front is great, so pulling in, backing, and parallel parking are all a breeze. It seems you could parallel into a space no longer than a living room sofa.

an hour of I-77 in NC

an hour of I-77 in NC


How did we do on economy? The rental cost was $25/day with unlimited mileage. We rented the car five days, or $125. We saved enough on gas costs to pay the entire rental fee. Our gas mileage was 25 mpg BETTER than our truck, so we saved over forty gallons of gas by not driving our truck for this 1,000 mile trip.

Assuming AAA’s April 2013’s $0.773/ mile total vehicle cost, we might have saved over $650 net by leaving our truck parked for this quick trip. AND we had a lot of fun driving this cute and comfortable little car. Thanks brother Chuck for the great cost-saving idea.

Sad Fiat

Sad Fiat

How about safety on the Fiat 500 — how is it in crashes? We had the misfortune to find out when a fellow started to turn left smack in front of us, failed to yield to oncoming traffic. There was nowhere for us to go, and despite how slow we were going, he pulled across too late for us to avoid his car. The Fiat is pretty much a mess.

Airbags deployed everywhere

Airbags deployed everywhere


The Fiat 500 deployed all its air bags, destroying both front seats and the windshield. The impact damaged the bumper, both fenders, both doors. The noise of the airbags was deafening, the smell slightly like burnt wiring, the car was instantly very hot inside, and some sort of cornstarch powder filled the air.

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The passenger side dash airbag broke the windshield. The wrecker guys said this is common, for the airbag to “use” the windshield as a backstop.

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The car’s body panels don’t fit too well anymore. Sort of a surprise to us, considering how slow we were going just before impact.

Jim checks with other driver

Jim checks with other driver


The other guy seemed to have no injury at all. We think we have only a couple of bruises and a bunch of burns between us. The bags seemed to have protected us pretty completely except for cuts on our legs from under the dash.

and then the wrecker truck tire blows

and then the wrecker truck tire blows

The wrecker truck picked up our rental car and us two hours after the incident to take all to Cincinnati where we could pick up another car and continue to Dayton. But the wrecker suffered a blown tire and stopped us AGAIN. Thankfully our good Dayton friends were already on their way toward Cincinnati and detoured to our road stop. They carried us home with them.

Our trip westward will wait another day while we try to sort out the impacts from this incident. The Fiat? Maybe a one hit wonder, but a great little car still.

See you down the road!

Jim and Debbie

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