Fiat's entry-level 500 Pop has been given a makeover for 2016. But can the revisions to the ageing city car match its lofty new $18K price tag?
The 2016 Fiat 500 Pop should perhaps be more aptly called Bounce, such has been the fluctuation in pricing of the trendy, entry-level, three-door city car over the past eight years.
Initially lobbing onto Australia's High Streets at around $23k, it plummeted to a savvy $14,000 drive-away by mid-2013, before swinging back up to this new, lightly made-over Series 4 version, now $18,000 plus on-roads or $19k drive-away.
Styling and an equipment realignment has breathed freshness into this modern-day Cinquecento, though it is, ostensibly, an ageing car in relentless pursuit of new tricks. One trick is the consolidation of the 2016 Series 4 range, deleting the sporty, mid-spec 500s and lifting the specification of the Pop to justify what's been, over its 2015 predecessor, a not inconsequential two-grand jump.
The Pop is markedly more expensive than a number of (segment larger) circa-$15k light cars such as Honda Jazz VTi and Toyota Yaris Accent. And, patently, you're paying for funkiness, whether you're drinking from the well of "the soul of Italian design and lifestyle," as Fiat puts it, or you just can't be seen dead in some cheerless compact-sized alternative.
Thing is, the funkiness the 500 has long traded on, yet asked a premium for now, isn’t exactly fresh any more. And a less-fresh, more-expensive Pop certainly has a tough job on its hands here on test, given 500s past have only once climbed above a 6.5-from-ten rating in past review, having scored an eight – surprise, surprise – at the Pop’s rock-bottom drive-away $14k…
Do the revised headlight/driving light/tail light touch-ups and more retro-aping grille inject newfound funky freshness? Perhaps not enough, though alloys rather than hub-capped steel wheels do lift the most-basic 500’s appearance. Yes, it's still an inimitable and charming little three-door, but only a Fiat trainspotter might pick a 2016 version from a predecessor.
The cabin, too, is as charming as ever, though there's little bold nor markedly new. What the 500 does well is inject enough joy in design and details – the body colour dash fascia, metal-feel retro door handles, lashings of high-gloss bright work and chrome – to lift the interior beyond the usual biscuit-bland city car fare. The deft use of quality colours and textures draws focus away from otherwise fairly rudimentary choices in plastics and (revised) seat trim fabric.
Bucking typical city car form, the 500 Pop feels surprisingly solid and well made, anchored by a nice, large, leather-bound steering wheel. There’s an air of proper quality, though I'd stop short of describing it as properly Euro-premium.
The fixed, high-set seating position feels a little unusual at first, as does the slightly unorthodox ergonomics seemed tailor-made for drivers with disproportionately long arms and short legs (frustrated somewhat by a lack of steering wheel reach adjustment). But if you acclimatise, as I did, the propped up accommodation is as endearing as it is quirky.
The seats themselves are supportive if not terribly shapely, all-round visibility is fantastic, and the dash-mounted gear shifter is a reasonably slick little ally. It’s also more comfortably roomy in leg, shoulder and head room than its diminutive size suggests, a least in the first row with the fully manual-ised seats set well back on their rails.
Less successful is the driver’s instrumentation, a carryover concentric circle design – driver’s screen within the tacho within the speedo – that are tricky to read in daylight and nearly illegible backlit in the dark, when the orange script is overlaid with red pointers. Another letdown is the lack of digital speedometer.
The only new gear of note is the UConnect infotainment system, bringing Bluetooth phone and media connectivity as well as voice command, all of which are functionally fit. The big plus is standard fit DAB+ radio. But there’s no navigation or reverse-camera to put the tiny five-inch screen’s full-colour functionality to much use, and that the only features offered in the ‘Apps’ menu are a clock and outside temperature display is, frankly, laughable.
There's not a lot of love in the features department: air-con is basic, there’s the usual array of single aux/USB/12v power socket outlets – the latter, confusingly, labeled with a key symbol – and there are four upholders. And that's about it.
The lengthy doors go some way to providing decent access to the rear seats, and with the front passenger seat jammed forward on its rails you might fit one adult in compromised comfort. It’s a strict four-seater with only four seatbelt positions, and rear accommodation is Spartan at best: the rear windows are fixed and there are no air vents, but there are Isofix points (though no tether points) for child seats. It doesn't skimp on airbag count, though, its seven-airbag surety extending to second-row curtain bags.
The boot space is an unchanged and tiny 185L, but the 50/50 split-fold rear seat backs fold forward for a usable if awkwardly packaged 550 litres (handily, there’s a space-saver spare fitted under the flat floor).
Despite its tiny size, it’s quite a cleverly packaged car, if one perhaps better suited to DINKS (double income, no kids) than small family practicality. That's no foul, though, that's why Fiat offers the larger 500X…
Less retro-chic and just plain old is the eight-valve 1.2-litre (or, at 1242cc, closer to 1.25L) naturally aspirated four-cylinder that makes do with 51kW and 102Nm. And at times it feels to barely manage that. The Pop makes very modest haste at around its 3000rpm torque peak and not much else either above or below that point. It’s neither sweet nor characterful when the accelerator pedal is pinned to the carpet, which is often, even in an effort to keep with the flow with traffic.
The 500 Pop does not respond to being yelled at with increased pace. I know. I tried...
The five-speed manual gearbox, as co-operative as the shift action is, brings little in the quest for sprightly urban speed. It has a quite tall second gear, so any decent progress requires wringing the 1.2’s neck through first gear to prevent the engine bogging down once you upshift. So leisurely is progress in the depths of second gear - the ratio so crucial for around-town duty - that you’re often tempted to downshift back to first gear on the move, especially uphill.
Typical urban pace second-third gearshifts are less painful, but keeping with traffic flow does demand wringing the little Fiat's neck…even though, you discover in time, that progress is no slower at half-throttle. All of which sounds like nitpicking until the point you notice that the 500 Pop barely ever dips below a startling 8.0L/100km of average fuel consumption around town. FCA quotes a combined cycle figure of just 4.9L…
Perhaps ironically, the powertrain is at its happiest, and the 500 at its most comfortable contending with traffic flow, on the open road. Yes, you need to pick your gaps strategically at highway speeds, but the three-door’s improved cooperation on the move raises questions over its effectiveness as a device focused towards city driving.
There’s no sport drive mode, per say, though the City steering mode works a treat, lightening the electrically powered assistance to a degree that you could three-point turn using one pinky. Normal steering, though, is nice, direct and completely friendly – enough so that City mode trickery isn't really necessary.
The big improvement for the 2016 crop on road is in its ride and handling balance. It’s no Abarth for cornering prowess, nor pretends or needs to be. Instead, it’s completely compliant across all manner of road imperfections – even speed humps are attacked with gusto – while remaining surefooted, competent and easy to manoeuvre swiftly through the trickiest urban confines. It's a fantastic chassis for around town.
Right here, colour is worth a mention. While appearing quite red in photos, our test car is quite a pastel pinkish hue (called Coral, a $500 option) to the naked eye, and not my preferred choice of an available 13. Rarely have I been chopped up and tailgated so frequently in Sydney traffic, and I have to wonder if the situation would be the same if the Pop was, say, black. Or if I'd instead been driving, I don’t know, a Ford Ranger instead…
At just 3.6 metres long and 1.6 metres wide, few alternatives out there are quite as easy to judge when parking. But while plugging kerbside gaps larger cars won't dare is the 500 Pop's great party trick, a reversing camera – as fitted on more affordable $15K alternatives in Honda Jazz VTi and Toyota Yaris Accent – would certainly be handy. And its omission in base 500 form, again, questions outright value. Nor does the Pop have cruise control that these rivals, to name two, have fitted.
Some aspects are less than well-sorted. The hill-holder isn’t the most consistent friend. There’s no ignition defeat if you inadvertently start the engine in gear, where it’ll lunge forward (in first) or backwards (in reverse) on the starter motor. Annoyingly, the indicators disengage at the slightest opposite turn of the wheel, which is every time you enter a roundabout.
Many buyers will overlook the 500 Pop’s shortcomings, its lack of equipment, its ageing format and increasingly passé and underwhelming power train. That's because it remains the funkiest choice in the compact segment. There's not a lot new but that core appeal remains, enhanced, even, through a dizzying array of personalisation options that allows buyers to mix and match body, interior, trim insert, garnish/logo and steering wheel colour combinations.
And that’s before you tick various body graphics, side badge, wheel and even key fob customisation options. You won't get that level of individualised exclusivity (for an added cost) shopping in Toyota’s or Honda’s neighbourhood.
There’s nothing wrong with the 500 formula or where its appeal is anchored. It’s just that the Series 4 is simply not improved, enhanced or merely changed enough from its predecessor to justify what’s culminated into a five-grand price hike in just three years. Even more gear, a more revamped interior and a fitter powertrain would’ve done the $18K trick, but Fiat calls that device the 1.4-litre 74kW/131Nm 500 Lounge, and asks $21K before on roads to get into it.
Click the Photos tab for more 2016 Fiat 500 Pop images by Brett Sullivan.