The looks are what immediately identify the Fiat 500 as something rather special and make it stand out from its other city car rivals. Its cheeky face and dinky dimensions aren’t exactly a rare sight on British roads, such is the popularity of the 500, but they still bring smiles to passers-by. The round headlights and front indicators are a direct evolution of those from the 1957 original, as is the bonnet shutline, which runs along the front wing rather than hidden on an angle. There’s plenty of scope to create a unique 500, too, with a huge range of options and accessories to choose from.
With an exterior like a fashion show, anything less than retro chic inside would be a disappointment. Fortunately, Fiat has done a good job of making the cabin a really nice place to be. The retro Fiat badge on the steering wheel beams back at the driver, while the body-coloured panel on the dashboard that stretches from door to door is only interrupted by a Bakelite-effect panel full of buttons. That said, if you look past or below the glitzier bits of interior trim, you’ll see that most of the other plastics are a lot less appealing, with plenty of hard, scratchy surfaces on display. The instrument cluster features a rev counter around the outside, with a speedo inside it and the trip computer in the centre. On the move it’s as though the speedo needle is chasing the rev counter, but it can make things a little hard to read. Digital dials are available as an option, and these are much clearer. High-end versions get a touch-screen infotainment system, but the small screen makes seeing and hitting the on-screen icons a little tricky, and the system doesn’t support navigation unless you pay extra. Finding a comfy driving position is a little tricky, too; the steering wheel only adjusts for height – not reach – and the seat height adjuster (which is only standard on high-end models) does little except change the angle of the seat base.
This isn’t a critical area for any city car, but the fact is that most of the 500’s best competitors perform better on practicality. There’s enough room for a couple of adults in the front, but the narrow cabin means they may well end up having to rub shoulders. The rear seats provide less legroom than you’ll find in most rivals, while rear headroom is even tighter; adults won’t be able to stick it for anything longer than a quick dash to the shops. The boot is just big enough for the weekly shop, but it’s nowhere near as large as the space you’ll find in a VW Up, and the most basic models don’t have a split-folding rear seat.
Ride and handling
The wheels crash clumsily into potholes, while the body of the car bobbles and bounces on scruffy surfaces
The 500 has a soft suspension, but unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into a cosseting ride because the suspension is poorly controlled. The wheels crash clumsily into potholes, while the body of the car bobbles and bounces on scruffy surfaces. This poor control doesn’t do the handling any favours, either, because the body leans over a fair bit in bends. Granted, the skinny tyres manage to give a decent amount of grip, but the steering feels rather vague. Quite simply, rivals like the VW Up and Hyundai i10 give you a driving experience that’s both more comfortable and more fun. The Abarth hot hatch versions have a much firmer suspension than the conventional 500s, but it’s uncomfortably firm and still allows a disconcerting amount of body movement.
Fiat offers mainstream 500s with a choice of three petrol engines, and our favourite is the most basic, the 1.2-litre petrol unit. Although it’s the slowest on paper, it’s well suited to the urban crawl, offering more low-down power than its 68bhp might suggest. Beyond that, it’s also up to sitting in the outside lane of a motorway for hours on end. There are two versions of Fiat’s 0.9-litre turbocharged two-cylinder Twinair engine, one with 84bhp and one with 103bhp, but so far, we’ve only driven the more powerful of the pair. There’s no doubt that it’s much nippier than the 1.2 provided you work it hard; but, when you do, it gives off a lot of noise and vibration. Even when you don’t, the power delivery is rather stuttery. More critically, choosing a Twinair engine makes the 500 a lot more expensive to buy, and affordable style is the whole attraction of the 500. The Abarth hot hatch versions have turbocharged 1.4 petrol engines, giving outputs ranging between 138bhp and 187bhp. We haven’t driven any of the fruitier versions, but even the standard Abarth is plenty quick enough.
Running costs should be fairly palatable; even the dirtiest engine returns more than 60mpg
The 500 isn’t the cheapest city car to buy, but prices are reasonably competitive when compared with desirable rivals like the VW Up and Hyundai i10. Running costs should be fairly palatable, too; even the 1.2 – the dirtiest engine on offer – returns an official figure of more than 60mpg, while the Twinairs return either 67mpg or 74mpg depending on which version you go for. The Abarths will drink fuel at a much greater rate, and they’ll also be much pricier to insure, but even the insurance groups for the conventional models aren’t particularly low for the class. Resale values are about par for the course, though, so you shouldn’t lose any more money come resale time than Up or i10 buyers.
Fiat currently holds a solid mid-table position in the manufacturer rankings of Warranty Direct’s Reliability Index, and as an individual model, the 500 fares pretty well, too. It’s worth noting, though, that almost half the faults reported centre around axle and suspension problems. The car comes with a three-year/unlimited mileage warranty, which is competitive by class standards, although some rivals – like the Hyundai i10 and Kia Picanto – are a lot more generous.
The 500 has achieved the full five-star rating in Euro NCAP crash tests. However, the test was carried out in 2007 and the tests have become much harder over time, so it’s possible that the car wouldn’t achieve such a high rating were it to be tested now. Standard safety kit includes front, side and curtain airbags, plus another ‘bag to protect the driver’s knees. Stability control and tyre pressure monitoring are also standard, but you can’t have an autonomous city braking system, even as an option.
Pop provides powered front windows and remote locking, but that’s where the ‘luxury’ kit stops
The basic trim structure includes three levels; Pop, Pop Star and Lounge. In truth, the Pop will be a little sparse for most tastes. It provides powered front windows and remote locking, but that’s pretty much where the ‘luxury’ kit stops. The Pop Star is the one you want, because it gives you air-conditioning, alloy wheels and electrically adjusting door mirrors. The Lounge gives you a fixed sunroof, rear parking sensors, the touch-screen system and a leather steering wheel, but it pushes the purchase price rather too high. If you are looking to buy a 500, keep your eye out for the various high-value special editions offered; you won’t exactly have to be eagle-eyed, as there seem to be dozens in the offing at any given time.
The Fiat 500 is as much of a chic fashion accessory as it is mode of transport. The funky looks and retro cabin give it a unique appeal in its class, and the popularity of the car shows it has really struck a chord with buyers. However, it’s not the best car of its type to drive, and it’s not the cheapest to buy or run, either.