DTW takes a Fiat 500C on a road trip. What did we learn? For one, don’t trust the fuel gauge and for another, it’s amazing people buy the Ford Ka.
DTW is a bit late to the party in the case of the 500 as we aren’t yet on the invitation lists of the major car companies. By now the 500 is getting on a bit, launched as it was in 2007 when George Bush was still president. Nonetheless, we have got a hold of one now and if this isn’t a review of the car, at least it provides a check against the opinions of the motoring journals.
The model in question is the 500C semi-convertible version, on sale since 2009. I drove a 1.2 litre five speed manual without the stop-start technology and without the Twin Air engine. As the weather was dire, I didn’t open the roof except once to take photos and once to see what it did. The headliner is admirably neatly tailored despite needing to fold up when the roof is fully opened.
Autocar considers the interior to be thoughtfully designed and overall I would have to agree. I liked the houndstooth grey fabric and the seats were supportive.
There are details that disappoint that don’t seem to be do with price. There’s a gap between the seat base and seat back so your mobile ‘phone can slide backwards onto the floor if you leave it on the front passenger seat. The radio seems a bit too far away, odd for a small car and the minor controls are a bit too minor, odd since bigger buttons don’t mean you need a car 40cm wider or a whole lot heavier. They simply styled them that way. The buttons for volume control are orientated sideways when everyone knows they need to be orientated vertically. Particularly irritating is the huge seat height controller which sits right by the handbrake and is nearly the same size. There’s no ashtray. The owner’s manual is fitted with Velcro so it doesn’t thrash around the boot where it is stowed. It takes up very valuable space there.
To drive, the car feels stable at motorway speeds which surprised me though it did need
adjustments as the cross-winds pushed it about. Due to the short wheelbase the ride is a bit jiggly (Car magazine agree) but the bumps were well suppressed. Solid is a word that leaps to mind. Autocar judged the throttle response to be a bit slow and the car needs a good bit of gas to get moving. I can’t say I noticed any tardiness in the step-off but I’d concur that getting moving you do need to mash the accelerator pedal somewhat in all the other gears.
Carbuyer.co.uk thought the 1.2 was thirsty and I’d concur. The recorded fuel consumption was a shade under 40 mpg on a mix of urban, local and intercity roads. That’s pretty bad, isn’t it? On the DTW standard continental tour of 774 miles, from Calais to St Jean Cap-Ferrat, the 500C will need 19.3 gallons of petrol**. With a tank holding 35 litres you need to fill up twice (lunch and dinner?) and have half a tank left at the end of the trip. I realise now the fuel gauge is especially dishonest. When I filled the car up only two of the bars had been dimmed leaving what looked like three quarters of a tank. Actually I had used up two thirds of the tank’s capacity. Sneaky.
Whatcar.com and this part of DTW are of one mind when it comes to the fun factor. The 500C simply isn’t any fun to drive. It’s not bad and if you want to skid around tight corners it’ll do so but it lacks any overt dynamic inclination in that direction. It turns and stops and goes but in a very uninvolving way. At no point did I feel it encouraging me to play a bit. It was almost asking to be left alone to get on with the job while I fiddled with the radio or zoned out. This was as big a surprise as the uninspiring fuel consumption.
I didn’t notice the steering and I didn’t notice the gear change; what sort of brief did the engineers have for this car? The stylists went to town making promises that the chassis and controls don’t live up to. Car magazine call the 1.2 litre version lethargic and that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. I’d call it adequate, just about. “Little for enthusiasts” they said. Nothing at all, I’d say. The Toyota Aygo we tested in the autumn was more enjoyable if noisier and less pleasingly styled. If asked to choose, I’d take the Toyota.
One nice feature, hated by Car, is the city steering. One can engage this by pushing a big button on the dash and thereupon you can twirl the steering wheel with almost no effort. The assistance cuts out at higher speeds. It makes parking easier and town driving effortless. What’s not to like?
Miscellaneous details that got lumped together
Another surprise is the rather poor rear and side visibility. On the 500C version the rear window is liable to get foggy and dirty. Then the C-pillars and thick B-pillars make reversing a chore – absurd for a car that’s 3.54 metres long. Luckily it’s fitted with parking sensors but they start beeping when you are about fifteen minutes from your destination. Because it begins bleating early you ignore it which seems to me to defeat the purpose of the device.
This bit is about safety
Driving on motorways I tend to want to glance sideways when overtaking so that I don’t get pulverised by a 120 mph Mercedes (or big white van). In the 500C the longitudinal thickness and transverse thickness of the B-pillar means you see little extra when looking sideways. You can barely see the sideglass of the rear window, so thick is the B-pillar. That means that between glancing in the side mirror and turning your head there is a field of view nicely obstructed. This feature along with the overall poor rear visibility most disturbed me.
The 500C’s boot version is tiny, more of a large glove box (there is no actual glove box). Again, referencing the Aygo, the Fiat’s boot is much less practically sized and the aperture is small. Getting one cabin-sized suitcase into it might be possible. Best to travel with as few things as possible, all kept in plastic carrier bags.
Car judged the 500 as car to be seen in but not to drive. And that is the consensus among the other reviewers. DTW will be voting with the majority here.
An ancillary thought is this: the Fiat 500 offers a pleasant ambience and nice looks. The mechanically similar Ford Ka doesn’t have those advantages. Why does anyone still buy that? Why did they ever buy it?
**My 25 year old 2.0 litre Citroen XM will only need five more gallons than the 500C to do the same trip. Thought provoking, no?