2016 Fiat 500 ‘1957 Edition’ Review: Fast Fashion on Four Wheels

wheel-to-wheel copy

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

We recently spent a week with a small, exotic, head-turning Italian car that you could spot from a plane. But before your mind starts racing, we should mention that we weren’t running with packs of nouveau riche Lamborghini owners, or plastic surgeons driving Ferraris, or even early adopters in new Alfa Romeos. And we weren’t reminded so much of Alpine mountain passes and the Italian Autostrada so much as Roman gridlock at rush hour. We were in a “1957 Edition” Fiat 500, after all, and boy, was it a car you needed to commit to.

The 500 is one of the older cars on the market, introduced in Europe in 2007, and largely unchanged since its 2012 American introduction. And as far as special edition cars go, the 1957 Edition is no spring chicken either. It was launched in 2014 to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the original Fiat 500, a diminutive city car that put postwar Italy on wheels and sold over 3.8 million units over its 18-year production run. Now, two years in, it looks like the trim will stick around long enough to see the 500’s 60th anniversary.

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And that’s a good thing, because the 500 is slow, loud, expensive to run, and at best, polarizing. But in 1957 guise, the city car is so committed to its retro look that it becomes charming. The ’57 Edition is like a hyper puppy that chews your couch, barks all night, and has an accident on the kitchen floor: It’s equal parts exhausting and maddening, but at the end of the day, it can be pretty fun too. 

Exterior

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The 1957 Edition is available in three colors: Celeste Blu (blue), Verde Chiaro (green), and Bianco (white), all meant to evoke the spartan little cars from over half a century ago. Our car with its celeste paint wouldn’t have stood out if other automakers offered more ’50s-era colors (a trend that we honestly wouldn’t mind), but against the sea of modern beiges, grays, and dark metallics, you could spot it from space.

That said, it doesn’t look half bad. It’s committed to its looks, with its contrasting ivory roof, body-colored wheels, and chrome trim. But it will stick out in traffic, and if that’s something that you’re not comfortable with, you should probably look elsewhere. With all that bright blue paint and matching blue wheels, it reminded us of that weird European import our relatives used to have back in the ’70s — the tiny one (maybe it was a Triumph, or an Opel, or maybe even a Subaru) with the outrageous color and the weird quirks that was the only one in the county. They have nothing but fond memories of that car. Our Fiat felt like that.

Exterior pros and cons

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Commits to a fun, retro look better than any other modern car.

+ Celeste Blu is refreshing in an era dominated by dark metallic colors and beiges.

– This is a bold car; it’s not for everybody.

– Body-colored wheels and chrome rings looked great on the original car. They come off as flashy here.

– Even without the retro trim, this design is starting to show its age.

Powertrain

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

1957 Edition trim aside, the 500’s powertrain makes it feel inadvertently old-school. It would be foolish to assume that there’s much power to spare (for that, look to the genuinely fun 500 Abarth), but the 500 is really, truly slow. You can remind yourself that it’s a city car, designed to compete with little more than the stop-and-go of local traffic, but even there, the little 1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four howls in protest as you pull away from a stop light, and you put its 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque to work. And in what’s probably our biggest gripe, we were shocked the first time we opened the fuel door and read that the MultiAir needs to be rewarded with premium gas to behave like this. We don’t want to know what it runs like on regular.

What’s more, the six-speed automatic transmission seems to get genuinely crossed-up in some slow-moving traffic situations. In Sport Mode, this happens even more frequently. Our 1957 Edition’s automatic was a $1,350 option, and one that we’d advise against. We’ve driven a basic 500 with the standard five-speed manual, and it fit perfectly into the “slow car that’s fun to drive fast” category. This is an engine that you’ll want to wring every horse out of, and with the automatic, you just can’t do that.

Powertrain pros and cons

+ In most stop-and-go city traffic, the 1.4 and six-speed auto play together nicely.

+ Sport Mode changes shift points and firms up the steering.

– Highway merging and lane changes are an adventure, and the engine likes to protest loudly when pushed.

– It’s easy to confuse the transmission in heavy acceleration/braking conditions like heavy highway traffic.

– You have to feed it at least 91 octane for the privilege. The 27 city/34 highway ratings be damned, premium is expensive.

Interior

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Luckily, the 1957 Edition’s goodies extend into the cabin, where smart-looking “Retro Marrone” leather seats with contrast stitching join an ivory dash and leather-wrapped steering wheel to evoke the cream bakelite trim of the 1950s car. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the colors and airy greenhouse help to make the interior a bright, cheery place to be.

Driving position is excellent, but the fat B-pillar creates a massive blind spot on the driver’s side that makes merging a hair-raising experience. Fiat has tried to mitigate this with a 2-inch wide blindspot mirror in the side mirror pod, but it’s too small and narrow to be of much help, especially at night. The front seats are soft and comfy, but lose points with their rock-hard, foam headrests that reminded us of a midcentury waiting room chair. And while there isn’t much room in back, the rear seats fold down for a good amount of storage space.

Interior pros and cons

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Leather seats, steering wheel, shift knob, and door inserts are surprisingly nice.

+ Retro themes work best inside the cabin.

+ Materials felt high-quality and nice to touch.

– Headrests are hard, uncomfortable, and tough to see around in the rear-view mirror.

– Despite all the glass, it’s nearly impossible for the driver to see out the driver’s side rear window.

– Not much room for passengers in back.

Tech and safety

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Like the aesthetics and powertrain, the 1957 Edition felt decidedly old-school when it came to tech and safety. Instead of a push-button start, it used a traditional key. And instead of a backup camera, your main recourse was to wrap your arm around the passenger seat, crank your head backwards, and look where you’re going, not at some screen (2000s-era parking sensors, however, are standard). For a small car, the 500’s sets of front, seat-mounted, side-curtain, and driver’s side knee airbags should be enough to keep occupants safe should the worst occur, and its four-wheel disc brakes stop the car just fine.

Fiat Chrysler’s UConnect is standard, though its 5-inch touchscreen is tiny compared to most modern cars. As part of the 1957 Edition Collection 1 option pack (a $700 addition), our test car had navigation, though it was slow, easy to confuse, and harder to read at a glance than most current systems.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Big, clear digital instrument cluster gives the driver a lot of information and is easy to read.

+ It isn’t the most tech-laden small car out there; that said, ergonomics are good, and every control is intuitive and within reach.

– UConnect 5.0 is tiny compared to modern standards.

– GPS is an expensive option. 

The drive

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The 500 1957 Edition is a paradox: It’s a car that draws heavily on automotive history that doesn’t seem marketed to gearheads. It feels too twee, like it’s more for girls with horn-rim glasses and guys with a monthly beard wax budget than car geeks. In a few years time, it may end up a perfect artifact of this decade’s fascination with all things “old timey” — something that’s almost too precious and old looking to be mistaken for the real thing, while still fully embracing modern technology.

So it’s a polarizing car, but we decided to commit to it. And it was easy to drive on errands in New York City, a breeze to park, and great on gas. It’s when you start putting miles on it that you begin to feel its limitations. It doesn’t like accelerating, the engine doesn’t play well with the transmission, and with the biggest blind spot this side of a panel van, lane changes aren’t fun. In areas with low speed limits and limited space, the 1957 Edition was fun. Everywhere else, it felt like it was compromising too much.

Wrap up and review

2016 Fiat 500 "1957 Edition"

2016 Fiat 500 “1957 Edition” | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The term we kept hearing in the week we had it was “weekend car.”

“Hey, that’s a great weekend car!”

“Now that looks like a fun little weekend car!”

Cars might be getting faster, safer, and more advanced with each passing year, but that doesn’t change the fact that most are indistinguishable from the rest of their segments. As we experienced in our time with it, our 1957 Edition seemed to resonate with quite a few people; it seemed to stand out as the antidote to the uniformity of most new cars. Maybe it brought them back to that time when they might have been that person with the quirky little import, the one that stuck out in a sea of giant Oldsmobiles, Chevys, and Chryslers. As gearheads, the 500 1957 Edition may not have been our dream car, but we’d be hypocrites if we didn’t respect the hell out of it just for that.

In many ways, it reminded us of fast fashion stores that have taken over every big city in the world. If Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Bugatti are the Armani, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton of the automotive world, then the 1957 Edition is the H&M, Zara, or Forever 21 version. In terms of exclusivity and aesthetics, it counts as an Italian exotic, but it’s well within reach of just about anyone. Our test car’s $24,340 sticker price is a lot to ask for a city car (base for the ’57 Edition is $20,395), but if you’re looking for something unique and retro, and aren’t afraid to stand out, the Fiat offers something that’s virtually impossible to find elsewhere for the price.

The 500 is still a small, slow, aging car that’s bogged down by compromises, but in our opinion, the 1957 Edition does its best to make up for some of that. The other city cars available in America – the Chevy Spark, Smart Fortwo, and Mitsubishi Mirage – aren’t just slow, they’re also tinny, unremarkable looking, and in most cases even more compromised than the 500. Our special edition Fiat was (mostly) fun, well put together, and undeniably stylish, even if its style isn’t for everyone.

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