Like the new Volkswagen Beetle and BMW Mini currently on sale, Fiat’s new 500 minicar has been designed to reignite the nostalgia and the glory days of carefree motoring in Europe during the 1950s and ‘60s. Marking the 50th anniversary of the launch of the original 500 ‘Cinquecento,’ the new 500 offers the same shapely bubble car appearance and sticks to the basic formula of a low-cost town car with plenty of character. For those readers not old enough to remember, the 500 harks back to the days of post war Italy’s ‘motorization for the masses’ when a number of economical models including VW’s Beetle and the iconic Vespa scooter became prevalent. Back then, anyone on an average salary could own the 2.97m, 500-odd kilo, rear-engined and air-cooled, twin-cylinder minicar. As for its modern-day offspring, the 500 is similar in its name and aesthetics only. The engine is now mounted in the front of the chassis with drive sent to the front wheels, and the cylinder count is up to four from the original’s two and is cooled by water instead of air.
Sharing its platform with the Panda hatch, the new 500 measures an identical 3.5m in length and its weight has more than doubled compared with the original. The 500 also picks up most of the Panda’s mechanical package including its front McPherson strut suspension, which gives the cute hatch an agile and pleasant driving experience on mixed surfaces. The famous 75hp Multijet 1.3L oil-burner assures adequate performance for the type of car, even if it’s a bit lazy below 2,000rpm. Because of the pint-sized engine, the 500 requires plenty of downshifts to keep it huffing along, but the slick gear changes from the five speed box and the extra urge is reward in itself for the extra work. The tested fuel consumption was 37.6mpg (6.25L/100km), which isn’t as good as we suspected considering more powerful turbodiesel models from the likes of BMW and Audi are getting more than 50mpg (4.7L/100km).
Styling and Interior
The lines of the retro styled exterior continue into the cabin, which features a large singular instrument cluster as an obvious throwback to the original model. The circular dial comprises not only the speedometer but it also features a semicircular tachometer. Though it may be beautiful to look at, a quick glance while driving can cause confusion as your eyes try to focus on the correct dial. Some nice touches like the glossy body-colored dash insert and chrome highlights give the car a more upmarket feel, but there’s no overlooking the rough plastic that encases the bulk of the dashboard and the door innards. Despite this, there’s no rattles or squeaks, even on the bumpiest of roads.
Designers claim the 500 is genuine four-seater but its sloping roof means anyone taller than five-feet will find it tough riding in the back. Getting in and out can be a bit of a challenge because the seats are mounted low but there’s good legroom back there once you’re in and plenty of little cubby holders scatted around the cabin. Pull down the split-fold rear seats and the 500 provides 500L of storage.
Fiat has made no attempt to hide the influence of the Mini by offering an extensive option list with no less than 100 different accessories and trim to choose from. The cars are categorized into three unique specification levels (Pop, Sport and Lounge), and comes with 12 different colors to choose from, six of which are vintage selections designed to match the paint schemes of the original ‘50s and ‘60s models. Our test car was the ‘Lounge’ flagship and came with a leather steering wheel, digital climate control, chrome detailing and a stunning glass roof.
The car's mechanicals are loosely based on the same set-up used in the Panda, with the key difference being a smaller track. Under the hood is the newest must-have of the Fiat label, the four-cylinder 1.3L 16 valve Multijet engine that debuted in the Punto. Maximum power is 75hp at 4,000rpm and torque stands at 145Nm from a low 1,500rpm. Outright performance is poor, testified by the 13-odd seconds it took to accelerate to 100km/h, but once the engine is on the boil flinging this little hatch around corners can get very addictive. The fixed geometry turbocharger is designed by Borg-Warner and works with an electronic management system to control the exhaust gases. This, combined with the supplied particulate filter ensures that the 500 meets established Euro 4 emissions standards and is even ready for Euro 5 regulations due in ‘09. Other key characteristics of the new 500 are its low weight and low centre of gravity. The diminutive engine weighs in at just 130kg, bringing the 500’s kerb weight to a smidgen under 1,100kg.
On the road
On paper, the new 500 could be described as a smaller version of the Panda hatch but, in reality, the two cars behave quite differently. The 500 is definitely the more dynamic of the two and it also gets the vote as the more fun to drive. As a nod to its city-car intentions the power steering system comes with two different settings, a lighter setting for city driving and a firmer and more accurate mode for twisty country roads. Our only criticism of the steering was the slightly numb feeling and limited feedback. Straight line performance doesn’t quite match the Panda, but the 500 is the more agile of the two and is better balanced thanks to its 16in wheels and low profile 195mm rubber. The suspension settings are obviously not as rigid as that of a compact sports-hatch, such as the Panda 100HP, instead it has a gentle roll and pitch that’s more coherent with the nature of the 500. When pushing it hard, the rear wheels manage to remain glued to the road, and with the electronic stability control switched off the 500 has a willingness to drift around bends thanks to its lightweight chassis and spirited motor. The new Fiat represents a good compromise between comfort and sports and above all is a pleasure to drive.
For such a small car, interior noise and refinement were major plusses. Travelling at the 159.8km/h top speed, for example, didn’t make us feel as though the whole thing was about to disintegrate like you do in other small cars. The minuscule 500 also rates in as one of the safest cars on the road, scoring a five-star rating in the EuroNCAP impact tests. Fiat fits seven airbags as standard equipment, and offers ESP for the entire range, safety credentials normally not found in this segment.
Should I buy one?
There are few other cars on the market that provide this much fun, attractive styling and half a century’s worth of history for under €15,000. Cars like the Mini Cooper and Ford’s Sportka spring to mind, but the little Italian has a sweet charm and earnest sincerity about it that you just can’t say no to. It doesn’t hurt that it’s hoot to drive and is a real head turner as well. Just don’t expect it to win you any races at the traffic lights. You’ll have to wait for the Abarth version for that.
Edisport Editoriale Spa