With the Fiat 500 having dropped to just $14,000 drive away, the petite Italian now faces a whole new horde of sub-light car rivals. Time, then, to see if it stacks up better now than when it cost Mini-money…
The current Fiat 500 has been around since 2007 yet it arguably hasn’t aged a day. This is partially due to the design elements being taken from the original 500 back in 1957. When your heritage is that deep - and you’re Italian - going out of fashion just doesn’t translate.
The rejuvenation of the Fiat 500 range in Australia is all part of the Fiat-Chrysler group’s push to make Fiat and Alfa Romeo, like Volkswagen, affordable volume brands with a European premium feel.
A few cars are offered for $14,000 in Australia including the five-door Mitsubishi Mirage, Suzuki Alto, Holden Barina Spark, Chery J3 and Nissan Micra. In reality though, those after a Fiat 500 are likely to be shopping it against the three-door Volkswagen Up!, a brilliant class benchmark which starts from a near-identical $13,990. But Fiat includes on-road costs and VW doesn’t.
Previously the Fiat 500 was available in only two specifications, starting from $18,300. The revamp sees three specification levels in both hatchback and cabrio bodystyles, plus a limited edition model sponsored by Italian fashion house Gucci.
Beyond the emotional styling, the main tangible reason to pick the Fiat 500 over the cheaper Japanese or Korean rivals centres around its dynamics. The 500 corners with ease, the car feels planted at all times and cabin noise is certainly among the best in class.
Only the Volkswagen Up! comes close for dynamics but the 500 feels smoother and more agile. It’s certainly a more rewarding drive.
As with the exterior styling, the Fiat 500’s interior is a standout. Despite its age, the use of bright colours and standout positioning of instruments lifts the cabin ambience well above the fold. It’s a complete contrast to the Up! which has a much darker, Germanic look. Nonetheless, the multimedia interface is very old-school, with Fiat having chosen Microsoft for its software partner, which is a scary thought to say the least.
The base model Fiat 500 Pop is powered by a four-cylinder 1.2-litre engine coupled to a five-speed manual transmission. It’s not exactly what you’d call fast but for inner-city driving and the occasional stint on the highway, it’s perfectly suitable.
It has 57kW of power and 102Nm of torque, which is about half of a Toyota Corolla. Then againm it does weigh around 900kg, so the power to weight ratio is not too far behind. The important figure here is fuel economy, which at 5.1L/100km, is impressive for a car so affordable.
Even the base model stands out, and if you happen to pick a few options to customise the roof colour and wheels, it will turn even more heads.
Step up into the Fiat 500 Sport and you’ll get a 1.4-litre four-cylinder with 74kW of power and 131Nm of torque, which offers a nice boost in performance. Given the list of additional features on top of the Pop, such as 15-inch alloy wheels, sports body kit and seats, and the performance boost, the additional $2,900 seems reasonable.
Fiat Australia says that it will be difficult to predict the car’s target market as it believes the 500 will have diverse appeal. Nonetheless, with the majority of local buyers seeking an automatic transmission, the 500 has one and the Up! doesn’t. Yet, it’s here with the automatic transmission that the 500 reveals its main weakness.
In Europe, the split between manual and automatic transmissions is almost half, more in favour of manuals in the city car class. This is why European manufacturers haven’t always been strong when it comes to automatic transmissions.
In the Fiat 500’s case, the Italians have coupled the city car with what Fiat calls a “robotised manual transmission”. In essence it’s an automatic transmission but technically it’s a manual transmission that shifts gears automatically. It’s like a dual-clutch transmission … except with only one clutch.
Its characteristics require a change in driving style. For example, if you’ve always been driving an automatic you’re probably used to a smooth shifting experience between gears without any input on your behalf. But this is not the case with the 500.
Given there’s essentially a manual gearbox underneath, each ‘automatic’ gearshift is done in the same way that a manual gearbox would operate, so you will soon learn that easing off on the accelerator pedal between gear changes makes an otherwise lurchy movement between gears significantly smoother. It’s far from ideal, but if you want an automatic, it’s the only option available.
Once you get over that initial adjustment period, you will soon be enjoying the Fiat 500 automatic without too many hassles. This is a requirement as there are only two manual transmission options available on the Pop and Sport, both in hatchback. All cabrios and the TwinAir Lounge variants are only available with the automatic transmission. This is in contrast with the previous model lineup which had a TwinAir with a six-speed manual.
Speaking of TwinAir, the 0.9-litre two-cylinder turbocharged engine is certainly not an engine size we are used to in Australia. In fact, there are motorbike engines with more cylinders and capacity than this. Nonetheless, it’s an absolute cracker of a unit with a beautiful engine note to go with it.
Packing 62.5kW and 145Nm of torque, the 0.9-litre engine is the most lively of the three. With great acceleration both off-the-line and in-gear. The turbocharged engine is responsive and lively yet it uses just 3.9L of 95RON fuel per 100km.
On the safety front the Fiat 500 scores the maximum five-stars in both the European and Australia safety standards. It comes standard with ABS anti-lock braking, ESP and seven airbags (including a knee airbag which is rare in its class).
Overall, the Fiat 500 is now equal best in class with the Volkswagen Up!. Where the Fiat outshines its German rival is design, interior quality and driving dynamics. It also offers more for your money and given Fiat’s emphasis on expanding market reach, you may even get better customer service to go with it.
The Fiat 500 is everything that we love about Italians cars in one small, competent and affordable package. When it comes to city cars, it’s incredibly hard to dismiss the 500 and now that it has a starting price of $14,000 drive-away, you’d be mad not to take one for a test drive.