Fiat’s 500 is not a small car. It’s a boutique car. People don’t buy it because they have trouble parking their normal car, they buy it for its cheeky cuteness; those ’50s-look pastel colors and wheel covers, or for that optional canvas roof out of which the buyer can imagine tossing three coins into the Trevi Fountain while careening through the Piazza. It’s a four-wheeled Vespa scooter, a fashion item. And it’s falling out of fashion. As with so many sporty coupes, the 500’s sales peaked in its first full year (2012) at 46,999 and have slid precipitously ever since, despite the addition of numerous special editions and variants. It attracted only 12,685 fashionistas last year.
It’s not yet time for a new 500 (FCA’s recently announced five-year plan indicated that the Fiat lineup will indeed consolidate around the 500 brand), but a fresh round of freshening is clearly called for. The biggest news for the delayed 2018 and close-following 2019 model years is the jettisoning of the base naturally aspirated 1.4-liter Multiair engine in favor of the 135-hp 150-lb-ft turbocharged version of that same engine that powered “Turbo” models from 2013 to 2016. The range-topping Abarth model still gets a lustier version of this engine good for 160 hp and 170 lb-ft (157 hp and 183 lb-ft with the automatic).
Plenty of new trim comes with that engine, including what is essentially the Abarth front fascia (needed to ventilate the twin intercoolers), foglamps, the sport appearance rear spoiler, turbo badges, and 16-inch wheels (up from standard 15s), which are needed to clear the larger performance braking system formerly fitted to the 2016 Turbo model. The now-mandated backup camera is also standard, and a few of the 11 exterior and nine interior (!) colors are also new for 2019. Inside, the base audio system upgrades to an Alpine setup, and the driver seat gets the passenger seat’s easy-entry system that remembers the original track position.
We sampled the new base turbo at FCA’s recent “what’s new” event held at the Chelsea Proving Grounds track near Milford, Michigan, and concluded that 34 more horsepower and half again as much torque is indeed a very good thing! Motor Trend somehow missed out on testing a Turbo model during its tenure, but it’s pretty easy to imagine this engine closing more than half the yawning gap in acceleration that existed between manual versions of the base and Abarth hatchbacks—9.7 and 6.7 seconds to 60 mph.
The shifter is rather peculiar in shape (imagine a leather-wrapped bowling pin) and a bit girthier than is perhaps necessary, but it gets the job done. The only shift I ever missed was the one reaching for a nonexistent sixth gear (all 500 sticks are retro five-speeds). The linkage will never be mistaken for a Honda or Mazda unit, however. The diminutive 2,500-pound car is a hoot to hoon around, leaning enough to suggest cornering gs greater than what the Pirelli Cinturato P7s are actually generating, which probably registers a plenty respectable mid-0.80s on the g-meter.