Fiat vs. Mini comparison test

Fiat Sport 500 vs. John Cooper Works
Edition Mini Cooper S

Don’t you just hate it when car magazines do a comparison test and force you to read (or skip) all the way to the end for the results?  Not here!  Let us begin with the results and work backwards.

The caveats:

  1. As you probably know, we purchased a Fiat 500 Sport a few months ago.  It has just barely 3,000 miles on the odometer, and has yet to receive any dealer or other servicing.
  2. The John Cooper Works Edition Mini Cooper S belongs to Susan’s sister, is two or three years old, and is approaching 30,000 miles.
  3. Since I lack the time and resources (and skills) of an actual car magazine and staff, this report lacks all of the accoutrements you might expect, such as specifications,drag strip and skid pad numbers, etc.
  4. I drove the Mini for about 450 miles – not a full menu of driving but more than a casual nosh.

Conclusions:

  1. The Mini (I’m already tired of typing the full name) is a far better car, and does virtually everything better than the Fiat, and often by a lot.
  2. I like the Fiat much more.

Depending on what you want in a small and nimble new car purchase, the following may fill in the blanks from the seemingly contradictory conclusions above.

Model designations:

The Mini comes in a variety of styles, with attendant cost variations, and each has a myriad of available options, giving the buyer who wants a particular combination literally millions of choices.  You have the Mini, the Mini S with more power, and the John Cooper Works Edition S with more of everything.  Meghan’s is a fully loaded
full meal deal with virtually every option available and probably cost north of
45k when all was said and done.

In addition there are the mini wagon, convertible, and (just out) roadster versions,(none of which I have tried)  to say nothing of the 4wd mini-SUV model, which is completely different and thus we will, in fact, say nothing about it.

The Fiat 500 comes in three editions, plus one now washing ashore. For 2011 you could choose the “Pop,” low cost cheap and cheerful edition, the “Sport” with bigger wheels and some body cladding and fog lights, etc., and the “Lounge”  luxo version. Options include a power glass sun roof (which we have) and an electric full length “convertible” top which slides back but leaves the roof sides in place, plus various other combinations of luxury and convenience items.

Costs:

Costs can vary enormously, with a basic Pop Fiat under 20k and a loaded Mini far over 40k.  Magazines (which are in the business of promoting new car enthusiasm) provide the smallest total cost they can without actually fibbing grotesquely.  They often omit delivery costs, plus state and local taxes, license fees, extended
warranties, etc.   The Fiat Sport 500 we specced would have an MSRP in a magazine of about 20k, and yet we paid a tad over 25k, including the trade in of an 11 year old Focus that was not worth that much. Add in power sunroof, extra cost deeper red metallic paint, forever warranty, permanent clear coat paint treatment, state and local taxes, and there you are.  In a sense, this comparison is unfair to both cars, as the Mini cost Meghan about 60% more than our car.  For 2012 Fiat has added the Abarth
model, now appearing in magazine road tests, which will sell out the door for
over 30k and would probably be a more direct competitor.

Interior:

The Mini clobbers the Fiat with much better quality materials and far better seats. The Fiat seats have been described as upholstered by Nerf, and I can’t do better than that.  They are comfortable for an hour while the Mini’s will grasp you in a warm embrace (heated if you like) for the entire day, and are more supportive in aggressive corners the Mini can carve with elation.

Surprisingly, the Fiat has more trunk space AND more room in the back seat, as tested by our two teen-age nephews, even though 6 inches shorter overall.

The folding arm rest in the Fiat is at the perfect height, whereas the Mini version is so low I can’t imagine a body that could use it.  Unless it is adjustable, which I forgot to check… for five consecutive days.

Instrumentation in the Fiat is complete, and in the Mini perhaps over the top. Smart phones sync into either with ease, and Meghan’s also has GPS, which we were too intimidated to use. It would take a lot of reading of the owner’s manual to get used to all of the potential – literally most of our vacation. As it was, there were several
functions I never figured out.  Both cars have a nice feature in that a delicate touch on the turn signal will activate it for 3 blinks – such as a lane change, while a firmer finger yank will activate the turn signal until cancelled. Interestingly, I never noticed this feature on the Fiat until after we returned from California, as the Fiat’s system
is very delicate.

Driving:

“Delicate” is a segue, as the Fiat is delicate in almost all the ways you interface with the car.  The clutch is light, the transmission shifts as gently as blowing fuzz off a dandelion, and the brake pedal is gentle, albeit effective. In stark contrast, everything about the Mini is macho. A stiff clutch, brakes that are powerful and immediate, and a shift that offers mechanical precision with some stiffness.

Performance:

Almost no contest. The Mini is a lot faster, everywhere, all the time.  With 225 big German horses racing 101 small Italian ponies, the Mini leaves the Fiat far behind.  Into a corner, the Mini slows more abruptly, enters later, carries more corner speed with more traction, and accelerates sooner and much harder. The Mini, driven with intent, is a seriously quick car.  There were occasions when I wanted to let the beast run free, such as when the bozo in the new 911 streamed by in the right lane – sort of – as we flew up 17 from Los Gatos over to Santa Cruz. Since that highway earns a lot of money for the CHiPs mavens on their motorcycles, and since I do not own the car, I summoned some maturity and let him go, but it would have been really interesting.

Fuel mileage:

Pretty much a non-issue. The Mini requires premium, where the Fiat does just fine with plonk, but both return well over 30mpg outside of town, so neither is a burden. I needed more data, but I suspect the Mini gets slightly better mileage.

Issues:

The Fiat is held back by the short wheelbase and stiff suspension which create a choppy ride on uneven surfaces.  Also, there are times when more power would
be nice.  Such as after driving the Mini, where the power is always there ready to play, whether or not you need it right now.  The downside is the Mini torque steers like crazy if accelerating hard, and tramlines with enthusiasm when hard on the brakes.  For me the biggest issue with the Mini is that I could not see out of it well enough.  A huge rear view mirror, low roof line, and thick A pillars make right turns an exercise in caution mixed with terror. Any stop light requires  a neck stretch to find out when you can proceed.  I was not able to find a outside rear view mirror adjustment that give me much confidence, where the Fiat has an extra convex panel on the left mirror to aid in this.

Overall:

I expected to adore the Mini, after a taste of its charms last year. This time it was 5 days to drive anywhere we wanted, which included the Napa valley, the Monterey peninsula, and Santa Cruz. At first I thought it I was nervous about using someone else’s car, but I get to use someone else’s car or motorcycle quite often, so that wasn’t it.  Gradually it dawned on me that I just didn’t enjoy driving it, and after that it was all downhill.

Susan summed it up best when she said, “Driving the Fiat is fun, and driving the Mini is work.”

If I did a lot of track days or performance rallies, or had other occasions where I could access the Mini’s prodigious performance on a regular basis, perhaps I would feel differently, but I was happy to store the keys to the Mini before we left for the airport,
and thrilled to climb into the Fiat when we got home.  I even went out upon our return and drove the Fiat “con brio” on a short stretch of winding road to check my impressions.

Slower? Yep. More fun?  Much.

As they say, your results may   differ.

With thanks to Meghan and her family. Imagine relatives that are off to Tahoe for some skiing, and leave you their beautiful home with extra gifts to open and a Mini to use as you please in some of the best driving areas of the world!

Copyright 2012                                                        David Preston

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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