Pointless Road Test – FIAT 500 1.2l Lounge

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.

FIAT 500 1.2L Lounge in Pasodoble Red
So familiar, it’s invisible

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.

Nissan Micra 3rd Generation
A more sophisticated Japanese interpretation of the ‘Nuova’ 500? – source: RAC

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).

FIAT Cinquecento in Broom Yello - source media.wiki
FIAT Cinquecento – closer in concept to the ‘Nuova’ 500?

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.

FIAT 500 – funky interior.

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.

The original and best.  Image (c) : oldcar and vehicle

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.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

11 thoughts on “Pointless Road Test – FIAT 500 1.2l Lounge”

  1. My first encounter with a 600 was in the mid-60s when, trying to curry favour with an attractive lecturer, I offered to help her with a starting problem.
    Being fine with British cars was utterly useless; everything was not only back to front but quite inscrutable. (I’d also looked into Beetles of the same age, but they never went wrong.)
    Eventually I had to get expert help…

    As for the Robinson Jr’s “500”, the facelift has given it too many front lamps, unsuitable wheels, and a facia and steering wheel which would make me vomit, to be frank. And a sunroof (which isn’t) that stops you wearing a hat.

    Surely one of the other 39 on offer could have been better?

    1. I’m afraid the other 39 were much the same, only most were in vomit inducing colours (to go along with the wheel and dash to which you have a bodily reaction) such as bubblegum green and coral pink. The alloys are a sod to clean …

  2. On the Saturday when this car was presented to the general buying public we went to our dealer (the importer, no less) because my wife was interested in the car.
    The showroom was brimming with potential customers and the salesman gave us a large poster that was folded like a map. He also asked us to immediately leave the premises because they were going to close at 2pm and there were only a couple of minutes left and he had a hell of a lot to do to get the other customers out of the showroom until then.
    When we told him that he could sell us a car on the spot he asked us to come back on Monday.

    I wonder how they manage to sell anything at all.

  3. Sorry but my driving experience of the 500 did not tally with eager, agile and zesty. I was disappointed by how bland it was. Really good small cars have a sense of momentum about them, like they are your ally on any journey – out-gunned by other vehicles, but ever willing.

    The 500 just felt like it would rather be stationary. Maybe the two cylinder version is more fun (although disappointingly thirsty, it seems).

    I’m still quite a fan: it’s a clever product, well-designed because the retro cuteness does not in any way detract from its main function as a city car. But it lacks the fundamental personality of its forebears.

    1. My own experience of Tychy 500 dates back to the pre-facelift model. I rented one in Newcastle Upon Tyne in (I think) 2013, having specifically requested a punt in a Panda. ‘We’re all out of Pandas today sir’, I was informed, ‘but we can offer you this’. I was disappointed, but the freshly valeted, almost box-fresh ivory coloured 500 looked so unspeakably cute, that despite going through the motions of being irritated, I was in fact, rather pleased.

      It was barely run-in, just a few thousand on the odometer, and given that it had clearly not (as yet) been subject to the habitual renta-car abuse I deduced it was probably representative of the breed. It was, I dimly recall, a 1.2 litre (FIRE) – manual transmission – engine stop-start – my first experience of the latter device and something of a shock on first acquaintance – especially in a Fiat.

      I hated the driving position. I felt I was sitting atop the car rather than inside it. The driving experience was best summed up as numb. But it rode quietly (as long as the surface wasn’t too bad), was entirely competent, but gearchange apart (which is indeed really good), I could derive little genuine pleasure from driving it.

      And yet, over the period of three days (or so) I grew incredibly protective of the little thing. Choosing parking spaces with care, worrying about it at night – (would it feel the cold? – it was bitter in the North East). Despite its lack of verve, the 500’s friendliness and charm won me over. I can understand why people love them. There’s nothing this side of a Japanese Kei car, that comes close to offering the same appeal for the money.

      It’s probably the canniest car Fiat have ever made and given that Uncle Henry paid for the platform, it’s costing Sergio almost nothing. And it’s most likely profitable – almost unheard of in this category. Quite why, Serge and Big thought for a moment that it would fly Stateside however is well beyond my comprehension. I have no idea how well they are screwed together in Mexico, but the Polish workforce who build them for the European market seem to be making a decent fist of it. Sales are holding remarkably firm as well. It’s looking set to top the category for 2017.

      Fiat, if they play their cards right could conceivably continue making cars to this essential template indefinitely. I cannot see the 500’s style going out of fashion anytime soon despite the industry’s wholesale embrace of stylistic aggression. As long of course as they do not screw the pooch.

    2. It was Andrea Zagato of all people who pointed out to me that the 500 is an example of how well an Italian car could do if it was updated in a consistent manner. And he’s absolutely right about that, even though I’d never have thought he was a specialist of mass market city cars.

      Fiat actually did something remotely similar with the Punto, which not only kept its name, but certain characteristics as well when the first generation was replaced. Punto II, of course, received an appalling facelift later on and stayed in production far too long, which required Punto III to become Grande Punto and significantly change its concept, before re-badging efforts, another dreadful facelift and a humiliatingly long production run squeezed the last drop of cachet out of the former bestseller.

  4. Nice writeup, SV. I’m another one to like the 500 for the same reasons you (and some commenters) mention.

    Following my recommendation (I test drove a Tychy 500 when imports began here in 2009 and was pleased with it), my sister bought a Toluca-built 500 in February 2013. The car was MY2012 so she had a good deal. I spent some time with the Mexican car and felt its build quality is on par with the Polish one. A few months ago, I rented a lipstick red 500 to ride around Nice, and it was like driving the right car in the right place – even though all that buzz around the 500 is long gone (and so does the one around the French Riviera, perhaps?).

  5. The 500 is a fairly piss poor drive, even in its segment. But that’s irrelevant. The design is super, it’s a nice place to sit and it’s a very pleasant car for a non-car person to own and nip about in. Purely in styling terms, it’s an oasis of craft and elegance in a desert of offensive, cartoonish crap.

  6. If you ever get the chance, try the electric version they have in California. All the cuteness plus puppy on a leash zizz AND quietness. All for $79 a month leasing charge! It’s a clean air cross-subsidy thing with FCA, obviously, to make up for all the Dodge Rams they sell, but if I lived there and had a <20 mile commute I would have one like a shot.

    1. Thanks for your comment Peter. It got me wondering why Fiat don’t offer it in Europe. After all, it would have a niche almost entirely to itself and could have beaten the forthcoming electric MINI to the punch. Typical Marchionne, I figured. Not a clue. I then looked up a Car & Driver report on the 500e. I can see that the car probably only makes sense as a lease, given that it costs twice as much as a combustion engine version, has an EPA rated range of only 84 miles on a single charge and thanks to the floor mounted batteries, the rear compartment is virtually unusable. On top of this, our ‘Serge famously told delegates at an industry conference that he hoped nobody would buy it, because every car they sold cost FCA $14,000, which as Gerald Ratner-esque statements is right up there.

      So yes, in summation: Typical Marchionne.

      Does sound like a hoot though…

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