The first time I laid eyes on a new Fiat 500 in the flesh, it was 2011. I was walking on a random street in the middle of Signal Hill, California, and came across a beautiful Prima Edizione in Rosso, gleaming in the sun. The sign in front of the building the car sat near read "Smart Madness/500 Madness." My interest was piqued and I walked inside to find a small shop with plenty of accessories, mostly imported from Europe, in stock and ready for the first wave of Fiat customers who wanted to customize their cars and make them their own. Founded by Boris Tilim and his wife, Rachel, 500 Madness adds the same support to the Cinquecento that Tilim has provided Smart Cars since 2008.
Roughly two months later, I purchased my 2012 Fiat 500 Sport, brought it by the shop, and was given a full walk-through by Boris. There were shift knobs from Italy, Magnetti Marelli exhausts, cold-air intakes made in-house, short-shift adapters, stickers, die-cast models, and a variety of other parts that swam past my eyes; drool formed at my mouth. Unfortunately, the only thing missing was my disposable income, so my car waited patiently to become more than just "stock."
Nearly four years later, my car, which I've since christened Nino, got his first modification—some brand-new Falken Azenis RT-610Ks in anticipation of my first experience on a track. The Track Night of America event left me wanting even more than just good tire grip on the course and spirited driving. It was time Nino and I revisited 500 Madness.
A lot has changed since my first encounter with the modification shop. For starters, the main building is now purely a warehouse and front desk, with items available to look at like before, but gone are the car lifts and instead there are tall shelves with products boxed up and ready to ship. In addition, there are three vintage Abarths sitting in the main building, sourced by Tilim's connections in Italy. Outside the shop sat a new Alfa Romeo 4C that had already been lowered, in addition to other modifications. Across the street is a dedicated building for the installs/service. The Tilim employees and two part-time mechanics have risen to a small but full-time staff of customer support, mechanics, and even a photographer and social media rep. Tilim now says they are the world's number one source for Fiat 500 parts and accessories and carry more than 3,500 different items.
While the company can certainly live up to its name of pure madness in its customizations, I was looking for some parts that were a little subtler but refined. These parts included the 500 Madness short shifter to decrease the rather long throw of the stock manual transmission, lowering springs to sharpen the already impressive handling, and a change in exhaust to give it a beefier/louder note that I knew the engine was capable of delivering.
500 Madness offers three options for lowering springs of its own design and manufactured by a partner in Germany. It offers a "Performance" option that lowers the car by 1.4 inches, an "Aggressive I" option that lowers it 2 inches, and an "Aggressive II" that lowers the car by 2.5 inches. I opted for the Aggressive I, since it'll allow for plenty of performance gains while still retaining a strong comfort level in the car. Plus, by lowering Nino by 2 inches, it should now qualify for SCCA autocross events, something the car's unable to do in stock due to a rollover risk.
The exhaust I had in mind was a take-off Abarth exhaust—something I have fallen completely in love with since driving an Abarth on several occasions. Unfortunately, while the exhaust can be mated to a non-turbo, it would require not only a modification to the rear diffusor for the extra exhaust tip, but also require that there's no spare tire underneath the car—the only option I have on my Sport. The practicality side of me won out on that one, so sadly, no exhaust for my car at the moment, though they do offer other exhausts. That may be something I'll re-examine later.
Instead, I opted for a different improvement suggested by Sales Manager Joseph Reyes. Madness makes and sells the GOPedal, which according to Reyes, "is like your sport button on steroids."
The install went rather quickly, taking the team of two mechanics less than two hours to complete; an hour for the springs, less than half an hour each for the GOPedal and short-shift adapter.
All of this work can be done at home easily, informed the lead mechanic, and doesn't require a car lift to achieve—however, it certainly helped. Having done the job hundreds of times didn't hurt with the quickness of the install on their part, either. A DIYer at home should be able to complete the job in no more than double the time.
The rear 500 Madness lowering springs were a simple matter of swapping each, while the fronts were slightly more complicated, requiring the removal of the shocks to replace the springs. Overall, it was very much a swap of like-for-like in principle.
The GOPedal was an incredibly easy install; simply disconnect the accelerator sensor from the pedal and connect the GOPedal into both open ends, thereby intercepting the signal. The controller holder can be glued anywhere to your liking on the center console, and was placed in the default area according to the mechanic, near the right of the left panel of the center console.
The short shifter adapter was also a fairly easy install, once the grunt work of using screwdrivers to pop out the shifter lever was done.
The nice part about all three of these installs is that they can be easily replaced back to stock should I ever want to; nothing was permanent.
When Nino was finished, it looked much leaner and meaner, the gap between the tires and my wheelwells looked exactly as it should have at stock—a nice inch or two gap rather than the massive gap it had before. Exactly the kind of subtle change that keeps its looks classic but adds performance to the car.
Driving on the street immediately after was like driving a totally different car.
As I became used to the shorter throws of the 500 Madness short shifter adapter, I absolutely loved it. The throws feel so much stiffer and solid than before, eliminating any vagueness and long throw the old shifter had. I'll never think about removing it—it's a very worthy investment any manual Fiat 500 should have.
The 500 Madness lowering springs are very comfortable. They were definitely stiffer than my already somewhat-stiff stock setup on my Sport, but extremely tolerable on the road. The only times I could feel a difference were on speed bumps and particularly bad surfaces on roads. Otherwise, there's no difference in comfort, but instead a much sharper turn-in, as well as that improved look.
Now, the Madness GOPedal. The "Sport" button in the 500, as-is, is a lot of fun and dramatically increases the throttle response. However, some may be disappointed in the lag that is still apparent when trying to accelerate with gusto. The GOPedal eliminates all lag. You lightly press on the gas and you're off with this installed. It's all customizable, however, with three modes. The first mode is a "Sport" mode that increases the throttle response in your sport mode by 10-15 percent, thus reducing quite a bit of that lag while still maintaining a smooth acceleration. The next mode is "Race," which gives your 500 a shot of insanity. The lag is eliminated and you have maximum throttle response. Then there's an "Eco" mode, which will give you more power in the low-rpm range, but is more economical on gas. Should you want to go back to stock, just turn it off and you're back to basic non-sport and sport-modes should you desire. Furthermore, each mode can be adjusted by strength up to three clicks of intensity. I've found for daily spirited driving, the "Sport" mode up one or two clicks gives me everything I need. On curvy roads, I may put it in a low intensity on "Race." Only once have I driven in "Race" with all three intensity levels for an extended amount of time—when I went to the track once more to see how these all fared working together at the peak.
I returned to the second SCCA Track Night of America event at Willow Springs Streets of Willow with the new and improved Nino. "Race" mode was maxed out and Electronic Stability Mode was turned off. The difference was night and day on the track. Throttle response was there instantly when I needed it accelerating out of corners. The lowered suspension combined with my Falkens was like glue on the corners as Nino moved through each with so much confidence and swagger, it was even noticeable to the SCCA PR rep spectator who had witnessed me on the track before. The short shifter felt so solid as I worked my way up and down the gears. The experience was unbelievable thanks to the parts Madness created and installed, and kept a delirious smile on my face the whole time with the occasional whoop and holler I may have let out.
In all, I highly recommend the combination of all three of these parts by this passionate company. Next up, I may consider a cold-air intake and front strut brace just to fine-tune it that much more, but in the meantime, the four years it took to put these parts on were well worth the wait and will keep that smile on my face every day I drive.
More information about 500 Madness can be found at 500Madness.com.