There probably isn’t anything left on the keyboard that has not already been written about the FIAT 500, but that’s not going to stop DTW as recent ownership has permitted some real-world insights.
The new-age FIAT 500 is a car I don’t want to like. It’s a cynical fraud for starters, sharing underpinnings with the previous generation FIAT Panda and Ford Ka. I like the Panda, having an especially fond soft spot for the 100HP which was the meaner spiritual successor to the Cinquecento Sporting that I so cherished in my early twenties.
I think I am also biased by ownership of that car, which I thought at the time to be a logical progression of the Nuova 500’s gene-pool; the Cinquecento of the late 80’s and 90’s seemed to be just that – small, practical, basic and cheap. The pastiche Nuova 500 alike styling of the new 500 – inside and out – is a commercially cynical attempt to twang the heart strings, and compromises practicality and function at the altar of style.
And of course, the whole engineering set up is totally wrong – four cylinders driving front wheels through a 5 speed gearbox, front mounted too and, heaven forbid, electric power steering with a super-light ‘Town’ driving function. It’s even built in Poland. No, the Up!, Citroen C1, or new Twingo are much more conceptually spiritual successors to the Nuova 500 in my mind – the ‘new’ 500 has always been at risk of being bracketed with the new Beetle.
One could even argue that the K12, third generation Nissan Micra made a more interesting and sophisticated fist of creating a Nuova 500 type vibe.
However, my wife has wanted one for a very long time, and yet has very commendably put her dreams to one side and taken one for the team whilst the need for a proper family carrier was a primary need (our previously featured Xsara Picasso). She loves the small size, the cute looks inside and out, and the fun of zipping around town in it. She cares not for what lies beneath the retro looks.
So, when the opportunity came to move things around on the Robinson garage (due to son now driving), after her years of putting up with my stupid taste in cars, I had to do the right thing. Buying our (used) car was quite an experience, by the way. The dealership in St. Albans must have had over 40 nearly-new 500s in stock and walking through them like a flock of sheep reminded me that I did not know it came in so many colours, trims and derivatives. Almost disturbing.
Yes, the current 500 has been on sale for many years now. It’s so common as to have become invisible. I had not realised how many of them there are until our impending purchase sparked my interest and I noticed that they are … everywhere. There is a street just up from ours where there are 4 parked in quick succession. This is the car that saved FIAT (the dealer from whom we bought the car told us so).
An unfortunate consequence of that success is that FIAT retreated into using the most tell-tale details from the 500 to create malformed MPVs and even an SUV that wear the same sub-brand. It’s unfortunate as I believe it has stifled the more innovative instincts in FIAT’s stylists and engineers (I’m still lamenting the loss of the Multipla, Brava/ Bravo, Uno, IDEA’s Tipo and the early Punti).
Our 500 is a facelifted model, bought with just over 8,000 miles on the clock and 16 months old. It’s in a very cheery bright red called ‘Pasodoble’ – not the frightful coral hue – and has the spangly lower air intake, the very complexly moulded alloy wheels, the funky rear lights with the centres blanked out by a body coloured plate, and the large fixed glass roof. The facelift successfully modernises the look of the car, which means it’s also fussier than the pre-facelift model. Inside it has the 6” screen infotainment kit, without SatNav, and the ivory coloured dash and upper seat trim.
And, you know what? I can’t help but smile every time I walk up to the car. And again when I sit in it. And again when I get out of it.
The car looks tiny in isolation, but turns huge when parked next to one of the Nuova 500s that it mimics, and is even noticeably bigger than my old Cinquecento. The fact that it manages to look so small is all down to the very well judged proportions and relative scaling of the details. I think the rear three quarter view is especially cheeky and successful.
The domed, clamshell bonnet and front light treatment is also well executed. Take a bow, Frank Stephenson (also credited with the original BMW MINI). It does look a little ‘pin-heady’ from some angles, due to its height, the slope of both the rear (which creates what must be the world’s smallest and most useless parcel-shelf) and tumblehome. Overall, though, I find it really hard not to like.
The interior is similarly successful stylistically, even if that style does create some dysfunction. You sit on a very attractive if narrow seat, high up, and without a proper height adjuster (there is adjustment but it just lowers the rear edge of the base, hence it’s really a seat tilt adjuster). I find I can’t drive with the perforated sunroof shade drawn forward without it rubbing against my pate, which gets irritating and even a little sore after a while.
The instruments, cowled in ivory coloured Bakelite effect plastic, look like old-fashioned weighing scales, with an outer dial showing speed and an inner one for the rev-counter. The needles are red, the font used very 50s, and when illuminated the ensemble glows in a warm golden light, but it’s hard to take in information at a glance.
The HVAC controls and surround are all in the same ivory Bakelite stuff and illuminate in soft orange at night (ours is already on the blink and needs a subtle tap or two to encourage the back-lighting to make an appearance on the driver’s half of the ensemble). These controls are thankfully chunky twist-knobs, simple to operate and good looking, supplemented with buttons for the heated rear window. Ventilation is fine, with four separately controllable vents, again in the ivory hue.
Above these is the infotainment screen, which is a bit of a low-functionality gimmick (my daughter likes it), but does offer Bluetooth connectivity for the phone, which can be operated by voice via controls on the (again, ivory coloured) leather-bound, nicely dished, if slightly over-sized steering, wheel. Below the HVAC controls sits a high-mounted gear lever topped by an over-large knob – I’ll come back to that.
A body colour panel enlivens the dash in front of the passenger, sitting over a roughly textured, dark grey lid for the glove-box, which has already been marked by scratches (thank you, Molly the Border Terrier). The doors are in similar, dark grey, textured plastic with handy, full length (if rather shallow) door bins. There are cup holders fore and aft in the floor mounted console which also houses the manual handbrake.
Space inside is roomier than you might think for feet, legs and knees, but a little cramped for heads, especially in the rear. The car is narrow, so you sit cosy next to the passenger in the front – it’s particularly noticeable for me coming from the C6 and Octavia. This engenders a spirit of fun and adventure (honest) every time you set out, especially four-up.
Under that microscopic parcel shelf, the boot is surprisingly large (but is still small) and it split folds in the most crude manner. The dealer who sold us the car was adamant that there is more space inside than a MINI, which I find hard to believe, but the truth is it’s more comfortable than I expected it would be.
Overall, the finish is mixed; there are visible wires behind fragile looking plastic plates around the bonnet release lever and the quality of the dark grey plastic everywhere lowers the tone – but you tend to focus on the ‘feature’ stuff in ivory and body colour which makes it all very easy to forgive. As mentioned earlier, there is even pleasure to be had on exiting the car; step out of the long doors and you smile as you wonder where the rear section of the bodywork has gone, it really is that diminutive.
Driving the 500 is good, old fashioned, small-car fun. You sit too high, the steering is a bit soft and light, and the clutch could be a bit more progressive, but it’s eager, agile and zesty. The engine is a relation of the 1.1L FIRE that was in my old yellow Cinq, and hence is smooth, willing to rev, a bit raucous and not very powerful or torquey; hence swift progress requires lots of revs and a bit of patience. It suits the car really well.
The suspension is firm to knobbly and the steering light and direct if quite lowly geared – there’s a lot of wheel twirling if you need to take advantage of the small turning circle – and so the car handles with great verve. So much of the fun derives from the car’s small size and short wheelbase, albeit that comes at the cost of a fidgety ride and bonking over the proliferation of speed-bumps in my home town.
It’s quite noisy inside, with road noise being the most notable and unpleasant contributor. The brakes are strong, however, the pedal makes a tinny twang when released which adds the that overall sense that there’s a cheap car underneath all the nice stuff that makes the car so look so retro and funky.
Star of the show dynamically – for me at least – is the gear-change. It’s not my favourite ever (Mazda3), but is so perfectly suited to this car that it deserves a special mention. First, the change is fool-proof – a beautifully defined gate, with no slop in the action, and a firm springing to the centre 3-4 plane so that I dare anyone to baulk the 2-3 change. Second, it has a lovely damped movement as you slot it into each gear – like the gate is edged by the green baize from a snooker table; 3rd to 4th is especially sweet. Third, that comedy-sized, smooth, 8-ball alike gear-knob is surprisingly fantastic.
I thought I’d hate it as a gimmick, but, coupled with a short throw and positioned where it is on the dash, it just feels chunky and tactile. This makes working that little old FIRE engine a pleasure and encourages you to use the revs in every aspect of driving the car. All it lacks is a bit of mechanical feel – that counter-weighted effect that I loved about the Mazda – but otherwise, I love it. All that verve around town doesn’t harm fuel economy too much, averaging around 46 MPG.
So, is there anything new to add to the millions of words spilt in the name of the FWD FIAT 500? No doubt I have failed. However, I love it and it has surprised me that I love it so, which is why I thought it worth reviewing. I had previously thought it a car designed so obviously to have character that it would inevitably be devoid of that quality – much as music aficionados in the 80’s dismissed the phenomenally successful tunes of Stock Aitkin and Waterman as empty pastiches of soul and disco classics.
I’ll admit that it is at times a confusing confection and the ‘feature’ styling allows FIAT to charge a premium price for a low-cost car. People expecting MINI levels of engineering and material quality will be perplexed, for example. However, it does have character, which is a cheering and endearing simplicity.
Overall, it’s great to have a properly small car again. This is one of the things that I really like; it is trying to be nothing but a small car, designed for town and surrounding country use and ease of parking (it’s hilariously simple after time in the QE2-like C6). There is no effort to be sophisticated or possess a ‘big car’ feel (step forward the i10), and, while this and the ultimate lack of practicality might limit its appeal, it does help create a more intense personality.
It will be interesting to see how FIAT replaces such a phenomenon, especially bearing in mind what a progressively notable dogs-dinner BMW has made of replacing its own iconic pastiche.