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Fiat 500 Turbo: More pint-size punch?

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As with the dead, it is considered poor form to speak ill of the cute.

This makes assessing the adorable Fiat 500 Turbo very difficult. It has a 135-horsepower turbocharged version of the 1.4-litre Multiair four-cylinder engine used by its lesser brethren. In essence, it sits between that car and the raucous, performance-oriented 160hp 500 Abarth.

The base 500 can feel dreadfully slow away from the dense medieval urban cores where the car’s legend was forged, while the tightly sprung Abarth can feel uncompromisingly harsh. Fiat envisions the Turbo as the Goldilocks-baiting ideal mean.

The issue is that the Fiat 500 Turbo does not begin with solid fundamentals. Yes, it is adorable. Yes, critical words might hurt the poor thing’s feelings. But the car on which it is based drives as if its chassis were bolted to a sponge. A vague, wobbly shifter asks that you wave it in the direction of the desired gear, not slot it there with authority.

Though the Turbo has been upgraded in some respects, its suspension still pounds occupants with a stiff ride, and like the base car, it heels over like a sailboat in corners.

The 1.4-litre turbo engine also makes disappointingly little power in the lower half of the rev range, requiring drivers to flog the car to produce useful acceleration. Above 3,000rpm, the 500T delivers acceptable performance; below that it feels like the non-turbo version.

Compounding the lack of easily exploited power is the car’s wan throttle response. It has none of the crisp, motorcycle-like action that engages enthusiasts.

Impressions might be more favourable if a driver came to the 500 Turbo without knowledge of its competitors, but the car is among the least attractive propositions in its class when judged by anything other than looks. The Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Mazda 2 particularly stand out for their fit and finish, more eager powertrains and fun, accurate clutch-shifter combinations. They also enjoy more direct steering that delivers the expected response to input.

These subcompacts are fun, well made and predictable when driven hard. Probing their limits is not what they were built for, but these so-called economy cars make the most of what they have and never punish their driver.

The same cannot be said for the imprecise and slow-unless-flogged 500 Turbo, as much as it hurts to lob mean words at such a cutie pie.

Vital stats: 2013 Fiat 500 Turbo

  • Base Price: $19,500
  • As tested: $22,350, inclusive of $700 destination charge
  • EPA fuel economy: 28mpg city, 34mpg highway
  • Drivetrain: 135hp turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission
  • Major options: Beats audio package with subwoofer, comfort/convenience group with thermostatic climate control, heated seats, SiriusXM satellite radio

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