Retro retrospective: Fiat 500 revisited

16 July 2015

Fiat 500

Fiat 500
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Good: cheeky charm, feels special, thrifty
Bad: cramped in the back, gutless 1.2 engine
Price: from £10,690
There's a new Fiat 500 on the way, launched this week and due in showrooms in September. It’s fair to say that the new car looks remarkably like the old one. If you thought BMW was a tad timid with its overhauls of the modern Mini, then prepare to discover a whole new category of caution.

In truth the new 500 is not really new, just another mid-life makeover of what continues to be a remarkably successful car. The modern Fiat 500 went on sale in the UK in January 2008 and has sold strongly ever since. Once you get behind the wheel of the current 500 you start to notice exactly how many others are bouncing along the UK’s roads. The little egg-shaped beasties are everywhere.

That, of course, means there are lots of used examples to choose from – and probably some discount bargains to be found as dealers clear the decks ahead of the facelifted model. You can plump for a candy-coloured chrome-bumpered cutie or go for Abarth as a sporty version of Fiat 500.

And even a brief taste of ownership makes it obvious why the compact Fiat has sold so well. While most cars of a similar size appear to have been assembled by accountants with buckets of blandness, the 500 is a sea of shiny surprise and delight. There are cool metal door handles in place of flimsy plastic flaps. Bright chrome rings around minor dashboard switches. Interesting colours and chunky controls. And an unmistakeable feeling that you’ve chosen something possessed of a bit of character.

Fiat 500 rear view

Jump instead into the much cleverer but much less successful Toyota iQ and you can’t miss the difference. The Fiat is wasabi-spiked sashimi next to the iQ’s cold dead fish.

That’s not to say that the Fiat is without its faults. After a week with the retro 500 I’m keenly aware of its limitations. For it has many.

The most noticeable issue is its size. At 3.54 metres from button nose to rounded rump, the 500 is on a par with city cars like the Peugeot 108, Citroen C1 and VW Up. But with a more rounded form than any of the above, and a gently sloping rear end, the Fiat feels distinctly cramped in the back, with the car’s broad rearmost pillars feeling unnervingly close to your head. And those thick rear pillars are remarkably close to the front windows, biting big chunks from your vision at oblique junctions.

Fiat 500 parcel shelf

The car’s oval shape also gives it a truly tiddly boot. You can forget baby buggies or even an average weekly shop when faced with just 185 litres for cargo, topped off by a parcel shelf the width of Barbie’s waist.

Front seat accommodation is better, though there’s not much room to rest a weary clutch foot due to the bulk of the central console. And you will need to rest your leg. The surprisingly hefty clutch left my knee throbbing and my thigh all aquiver after a two-hour slog across the city (on the wonderful occasion of the Tube strike). And despite the weight I found no trace of a detectable biting point. I managed to change gears smoothly only by reaching out with my feelings and trusting the Force. Thankfully the gearstick – easily to hand and topped with a tactile metallic ball – slipped smoothly from slot to slot.

The steering wasn’t bad at all, with a nice thick wheel, neatly trimmed, a decent amount of feel and extra assistance at the prod of a button for parking manoeuvres. And with a tight turning circle and a length about as long as a bicycle, the 500 could hardly be easier to park.

Fiat 500 front interior

The base 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine may keep purchase costs in check but it could prove to be a false economy as, over time, you slowly begin to realise you’ve bought the wrong engine and have to sell the car at a loss. Words like eager, peppy and punchy do not seem to be in the 1.2’s dictionary, though entries for asthmatic, lumpy and lethargic must surely be well-thumbed.

By contrast the 875cc TwinAir engine is a gem that suits the 500 to a tee. It is well worth the additional outlay, in my book at least.

The fuel-saving stop-start system on my 1.2 is also the first of its ilk that I’ve ever felt the need to switch off. In my test car at least, it was not as reliable as expected. Nine times out of ten it would start smoothly at the first touch of the clutch, but on that tenth occasion it would start, stall, have a think, and then start again. All of which took long enough for the cars behind to start hooting.

Fiat 500 digital instruments

Once you are under way, however, ride comfort isn’t too bad for such a short, narrow and tall car. It’s fairly noisy at high speeds, can get a bit bouncy over bumps, and after an hour in the saddle the seats can start to feel as if they might comprise a thin layer of fabric stretched taut over corrugated concrete. The seat base is also set quite high which, combined with a steering wheel that doesn’t adjust for reach, means you may struggle to get comfortable if you have short calves or long arms. Which, interestingly, is the opposite of the traditional Italian driving pose modelled on gorillas.

An audio upgrade is also advisable. The standard stereo in my test car sounded a lot like listening to the radio with my fingers in my ears while submerged in the bath.

Much of the above sounds as if I didn’t much care for the 500, but surprisingly that’s very far from the truth. The cheeky Fiat is one of those cars from which the normal rules somehow slide away without sticking. Objectively, it’s no better than the so-so Vauxhall Adam, but the 500 manages to be 100% more charming. Despite its faults, the throwback Fiat is a little car I found very difficult to dislike.

Fiat 500 side view

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