The Fiat 500, the modern-day incarnation of the 1960s ‘Bambino’, for now remains the only passenger car from the Italian brand on offer in Australia.
The likes of the Punto and Bravo are likely to return sometime in the near future now that responsibility of Fiat imports has changed from Ateco Automotive to what is now the Australian subsidiary of the FiatChrysler group.
Fiat’s Panda also looks set to head down under, but for now we’re focusing on the one passenger-car model you can get from a showroom featuring the Fiat badge.
If the Fiat range has been compressed since the brand returned to Australia with passenger cars (the Ducato van launched in 2001) in 2006 after a 17-year sabbatical, the solitary Fiat 500 has also had its engine line-up pared (if you don’t count the high-performance version that carries Fiat’s sporty Abarth badge, as well as the scarily expensive Ferrari tribute variant).
The Fiat 500 Twinair, available in $22,990 three-door or $25,990 open-top form 500C form, features a tiny 0.9-litre two-cylinder turbocharged engine.
With 63kW, produced at 5500rpm, it has 23 per cent more power than the 1.2-litre petrol engine it essentially replaces. In the torque department, there’s 145Nm delivered at a low 1900rpm.
With a stop-start system and some clever engine trickery from the Italians that involves electro-hydraulically operated valves that allow for a far more precise mix of air and fuel sees the Fiat 500 Twinair make some efficiency headlines with figures of 4.0 litres per 100km for consumption (3.9L/100km auto) and just 95 grams per kilometre for CO2 emissions.
In the real world, however, efficiency can drop like an anchor onto a seabed even if not driving the 500 particularly hard. The trip computer readout was closer to double the official combined figure.
Running costs are further hindered by the engine’s requirement for more expensive premium unleaded.
Some might accuse the 500 Twinair of sounding like a lawnmower, though we’re fans of the two-cylinder’s warbling soundtrack.
It can sound as if it’s going to stall at very low revs, but the 875cc engine is surprisingly flexible, loves to rev, and is particularly lively above 3000rpm.
Our test Fiat 500 came with the standard five-speed manual, but a ‘Duologic’ six-speed auto is also available for a $2000 premium.
100km/h is reached from standstill in 11 seconds, which is neither particularly slow nor particularly fast in the city car segment.
The compact dimensions of the Fiat 500 – just 3546mm long – of course make it an easy car to manoeuvre around the city, as does its light kerb weight of just 900kg.
The ride isn’t as bouncy over bigger surface undulations as it was when it was first released in 2008 thanks to some suspension tweaks since, though it’s still far from smooth while the steering is still somewhat vague and numb. Keener drivers will still find more appeal in the rival the 500 aims to out-retro: the Mini.
That’s certainly not to say there isn’t a sense of fun in driving the baby Fiat.
And you can’t escape that word ‘retro’ inside the 500, either. It’s stylishly done, though, with the main dash comprised of a matt-silver plastic in our test car, with a ‘500’ logo on the dash.
The dash controls are simple and logically laid out and there’s a tactile feel to buttons and chubby indicator and wiper stalks. The perforated leather steering wheel also adds a touch of quality, though it doesn’t adjust for reach.
The single instrument binnacle ahead of the driver is part retro, part modern – with the old-school-like large speedo surrounding another analogue tacho with a digital multi-function readout in the bulls-eye spot.
Where the Fiat 500 cabin falls down badly, though, is in the areas of storage and ergonomics.
The door pockets are tiny and there’s no console bin, while the glovebox is exposed, so finding a place to hide smaller items or even just stow a mobile phone is quite a challenge.
And how drivers and passengers interact with the Fiat isn’t helped by window switches that are positioned next to the dash-mounted gearlever rather than on the doors (an ergonomic quirk shared with the Mini).
The two-seat rear bench is a claustrophobic affair, with tight headroom and limited vision, though an average-sized adult will find acceptable legroom if sitting behind a front occupant of similar height.
The rear seats split fold 50:50 though the floor is stepped and the boot itself is small, with only a temporary spare wheel under the cover. The rear hatch opens high to help access, though.
$22,990 is expensive for a city car, even if that’s notably cheaper than a Mini.
Like its BMW-backed competitor, the Fiat 500 is pitched as more of a premium offering in the ‘light car’ category.
And some standard features are fancier than the norm.
The Fiat 500 Twinair sits on 16-inch black alloy wheels, for instance, and elsewhere for the exterior features foglights, daytime running lights and spoiler.
Inside, the aforementioned leather steering wheel is joined by a leather gearlever, auto-dimming rear view mirror, electric windows and electric folding side mirrors. Bluetooth and USB connectivity is also included.
Buyers, though, will have to pay $850 for metallic/pastel paint or a sky-high $1450 for pearlescent paintwork. A sunroof for the regular 500 is nearly $2000 and leather upholstery is a little more reasonable at $1450.
Safety highlights include stability control, seven airbags and a five-star NCAP crash rating.
So the Fiat 500 isn’t without its charms, and its cute styling will be hugely appealing to some buyers.
But it’s not as appealing affordable here as it is in Europe (even after price reductions in January 2012) and running costs are higher than the average city car.
And the retro car that delivers the biggest feel-good factor still remains the Mini.
Fiat 500 range
Fiat 500 manual $22,990
Fiat 500 auto $24,990
Fiat 500C manual $25,990
Fiat 500C auto $27,990