Whether you go for a top spec version loaded with options or settle for a basic 1.2-litre petrol entry-level model, there are some things about Fiat’s 500 citycar that remain the same: it’s cute and it’s cool. With this in mind, we’d be inclined to save some cash.
At this stage it’s safe to label the Fiat 500 a runaway success. Such an outcome was never really in doubt from the moment the covers first fell from its retro bodywork. MINI had shown what was possible with an old classic updated for the modern era and Fiat had both the perfect design and the ideal platform to snare people who go fuzzy with nostalgia at the sight of those rounded lines and circular headlamps.
Much of the underpinnings are based on Panda running gear - no bad thing as the Panda is a fun steer. Like the Panda, the 500 uses simple MacPherson strut suspension up front and a basic torsion beam at the back. A few centimetres have been added to the width of the car’s track, giving it a foursquare appearance and Fiat claims that body rigidity is around 10 per cent better than the Panda’s.
Since its launch in 2007, we’ve seen the option of an open-topped 500C bodystyle, frantic Abarth-branded hot hatch versions, a stop start system to make the continuing four cylinder petrol and diesel variants more frugal, subtle tweaks that have improved the ride and handling and a technically intriguing two cylinder TwinAir petrol model with outstanding headline economy and emissions figures. But there’s an appealing back-to-basics charm about the 69 horsepower 1.2-litre entry-level model we’re looking at here.
Sitting at the bottom of the 500 engine line-up, the 1.2-litre unit is nothing to get overly excited about. It’s a 1,242cc 8-valve 4-cylinder engine that produces a maximum of 69bhp at 5,500rpm and only 102Nm of torque. At least the 500 hatch and its convertible sibling are both lightweight and used primarily for short journeys in urban areas. This means that the engine isn’t asked to work too hard and should be exposed to the open road, where its lack of punch might be more evident, only infrequently.
The 0-60mph sprint time is nothing to be ashamed of at 12.9s and is less than half a second down on the range-topping diesel engine. With a top speed of 99mph, occasional motorway jaunts are far from out of the question. A choice of transmissions is available with a five-speed manual gearbox as standard and the option of upgrading to the Dualogic robotised semi-automatic gearbox.
As for the rest, well most of the underpinnings are based on the running gear of Fiat’s other, more conventional citycar offering, the five-door Panda - which is no bad thing as that car remains a pretty fun steer. The 500 is a bit stiffer though, one reason why early versions of this car had a bit of a choppy ride, an issue since solved by tweaks to the rear axle. You can still throw the thing about on the country lanes, but it now soaks up small urban bumps much better - so everyone’s happy. The more feelsome electric power steering set-up is welcome too and as before, there’s a ‘City’ mode option to increase the assistance it gives at parking speeds. Urban-friendly through and through you see.
Fiat’s designers took on a big responsibility in seeking to update (and indeed resize) arguably the cutest shape ever to clothe four wheels but the sustained clamour for this Fiat, in both fixed-top and convertible 500C guises, suggests they got it spot on. This remains a head-turner that makes people smile, not least its driver when it’s time to park up. At 1.65m wide, 1.49m high and 3.55m long, this Fiat can fit into spaces that even a MINI would have to avoid. If you choose the 500C variant rather than the fixed-top model that I’ve got here, you get what amounts to a full-length canvas sunroof which electrically retracts into a concertinaed bundle just above the boot.
Every 500 model invites a high degree of personalisation via a myriad of colour and trim permutation options but whatever you choose is sure to dovetail deliciously with the very well-judged blend of retro chic and clean contemporary design inside. Delicious details are everywhere, your eyes falling first on the Panda-sourced dashboard with iconic 500 badging that can be specified in the same colour as the body, before taking in touches like the chrome-ringed vents and the circular head restraints. The steering wheel, adjustable for height but not reach, can feel a little large on first acquaintance and there’s a lot to take in from the single circular instrument dial in front of you with read-outs for speed, revs and fuel usage running along similar planes.
The car’s been well screwed together though in its Polish factory and in-cabin stowage is also well up to par for a citycar. You’ll find a usefully deep shelf ahead of the passenger, a small pop-out cubby on the driver’s side of the centre console and the usual door bins and cupholders. Even the passenger seat cushion tips forward to reveal an oddments compartment. In the back, larger adults will find their heads brushing the roof and making full use of the elbow cut-outs indented into the side panels but most will find the space provided just about sufficient for two people on short to medium journeys.
And the boot’s bigger than you might expect, its 185-litres just about sufficient for the weekly shop, provided that your brood isn’t the size of the von Trapp family. If it is, you might have to leave them at home and fold forward a rear seat that, as you can see, on base models like this one doesn’t split-fold to free up 550-litres of space
Expect to pay somewhere in the £10,000 to £15,000 bracket for your Fiat 500, with an £800 premium if you want the Dualogic semi-automatic gearbox. The premium to go from the entry-level 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol power tested here to the TwinAir model is around £1,200 and you’ll need to find another £1,300 on top that for the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel. As for Fiat 500 prices in comparison to rivals, well, you might think £10,000-£15,000 quite a lot to pay for a little citycar. In reality though, it’s only about £1,000 more, model-for-model, than you’d pay for a less fashion-conscious urban scoot like a Citroen C1, a Peugeot 107, a Toyota Aygo or a Ford Ka. You’ll need to find at least £1,000 more on top of Fiat 500 prices to buy a comparable Toyota iQ and at least £2,000 more to buy an equivalent MINI.
Whichever 500 model you buy you should find your Fiat to be reasonably equipped, whether you choose the fixed-top model or the 500C open-roof version. The standard tally on the hardtop hatch doesn’t include air conditioning, a split-folding seat or ESP stability control, but all models do get a CD/MP3 stereo, power steering, colour-coded bumpers and electric mirrors.
Most laudably, Fiat hasn’t skimped on the airbag tally. In a class where rivals routinely force you to pay extra for side or curtain airbags, this car comes with seven airbags even in its cheapest guise. Anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution are there to help you avoid the need to use them. Once especially nice option is Fiat’s clever Blue&Me infotainment system, which features wheel-mounted and voice-activated control for the stereo, as well as features that can monitor your driving style and suggest improvements for peak efficiency. A Blue&Me Tom Tom touchscreen system integrates navigation and ‘phone functions in a neat, removable package.
Predictably, the engines powering the diminutive 500 turn in strong fuel economy and emissions figures. The diesel and TwinAir petrol, in particular, will be a good choice for those looking to keep running costs under control but the 1.2-litre doesn’t disgrace itself. The combined cycle economy is 58.9mpg and emissions are measured at 113g/km.
Fiat has also taken further steps to boost the car’s environmental credentials with its Start&Stop technology and a clever system called eco:Drive. Bundled up with the Blue&Me Bluetooth telephone system on the Lounge models, eco:Drive is a computer that monitors your driving style and offers tips on how you can improve your fuel economy.
The 500 seemed destined to succeed from the outset. There’s such a cheekiness and personality to its design that people would have bought the car even if it was irredeemably awful in every other respect. The fact is that it’s actually rather good thanks to its Panda platform share.
If you’re looking for cheeky, cheap and practical, a Panda is still a slightly better car. If a style statement is more your thing, the 500 gets the vote every time.