Think Italian style on a city car budget and you’d pretty much have the spanking new 2015 Fiat 500 cornered.
With an entry-level, drive away price of $17,000, the latest ‘Series 3’ ‘Cinquecento’ (500 in Italian) remains as cute and quirky as it has been since it debuted in 1957.
It’s a time-honoured design that continues to prove popular on a global scale, which is probably why you’ll be hard pressed to pick the changes on this latest incarnation of the 500, at least from the outside.
Fiat has seemingly been inspired by the gelato bar chain Gelatissimo, as they’ve added three new paint colours - Pastel Mint Milkshake, Metallic Blue Jelly Bean and Tricote Vanilla Ice Cream - taking the total colour variants to 14.
And apart from newly styled alloys for the mid-grade $20,000 Fiat 500S model, that about completes the cosmetic changes for the exterior.
However, personalisation of the ‘500’ has been taken to new levels. There’s now a choice of 14 different roof decals, 12 key covers and 16 interior combinations across all three grades; Pop, 500S and Lounge.
In a bid to improve the 500’s not-so-flash ergonomics, Fiat has put almost all its focus on the updated car’s interior, specifically, the 7.0-inch digital display in the S and Lounge variants (the Pop misses out) developed alongside Italian auto manufacturer and Ferrari supplier Magneti Marelli.
The updated screen displays a host of information such as a gearshift indicator, rev-counter, trip computer and importantly, an oversize speed readout that replaces the smaller, hard-to-read unit found in the previous series cars.
Opt for the performance Fiat 595 Abarth models ($33,500 Turismo & $36,500 Competizione) and you still get the 7.0-inch screen, though you’ll also find a “race spec” computer complete with a G-force meter and digital boost gauge. Abarth leather seats are now standard on the base Turismo, while the range-topping Competizione comes with Sabelt racing pews.
Another new feature on the Abarth models is a dual-mode Record Monza exhaust that opens up at 4000rpm to add extra decibels to the driving experience. Other performance mods include Koni front suspension (MacPherson struts, though the rear remains a torsion-beam setup albeit joined by an anti-roll bar), which automatically adjusts to road conditions.
A manual transmission is standard for most variants of the 500 and Abarth hatch ranges, though all convertible 500s get the Dualogic semi-automatic, as does the 500 Lounge.
At the launch we drove the $20,000 500S manual, which uses a 74kW/131Nm 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine paired with a wonderfully engaging six-speed gearbox. The shifter action is relatively light and precise for quick shifting, which is a far cry from the less-than-satisfactory Dualogic transmission that is incapable of delivering either a smooth or engaging driving experience, regardless of which variant you choose.
And don’t mind the modest outputs, either. At less than 960 kilos, the 500S is free revving and enthusiastic up to around 4000rpm, where it starts to run out of steam, particularly with two persons and a full luggage load on board.
It’s not exactly fast - figure on around 10.5 seconds for a 0-100km/h dash - but it still feels peppy and fun to put through its paces. There’s a fair amount of road noise, no matter what; but at least there’s a lively rasp to the engine note right through the rev range, which is piped through to the cabin for apparent aural pleasure.
Even with the optional 16-inch alloy wheel package (up from 15s), the 500S is able to mask much of the ride harshness that comes with anything riding on a wheelbase this short (2300mm). The small tyres and torsion beam do make themselves known on bumpier roads, though the car still manages to hold its line through the bends with limited body roll.
The 500’s “Dualdrive” electric power steering has a nice weighty feeling to it, as well as being responsive, though not overly direct, like that on the high-performance Abarth siblings.
On the comfort side, there’s slightly more bolster in the Sport’s seats, which are also wonderfully supportive even after long stints behind the wheel. That said, the seating also places the driver in an unnaturally high driving position – which shorter folks might relish, but could be an issue for taller frames. A lack of steering reach adjustment is also a downer for those with longer limbs, while audiophiles will dislike the fact there is no Bluetooth audio streaming despite phone connectivity being available on all models.
There’s no disguising this is one of the smallest cars on the market, with limited storage up front for phones, wallets and sunnies. The rear seats are best reserved for kids or very short hops for adult passengers. The same goes for luggage space. There is 182 litres of boot room available via a very narrow aperture – so you can forget trips to Costco in the 500. Fold the rear seats, and Fiat claims the load space expands to 550L.
For those that prefer a more potent Fiat 500 experience, there’s no going past the racy 1.4 litre tubocharged Abarth models with 118kW and 230Nm of torque to the front wheels. These new hot-shoe Italians replace the Esseesse models that were priced from $34,990 plus on-road costs, meaning the new price of entry is $1490 cheaper than before.
We sampled the $36,500 Abarth Competizione with the standard five-speed manual gearbox, and in our view, it's the pick of the bunch when it comes to sheer driving satisfaction.
It also looks the part, with a meaner front fascia with dual nostrils designed to feed cool air to the intercoolers. The quad pipes on the Competizione (the Turismo gets only dual) are dead-set giveaway to this model’s hardcore intentions, as is the bigger wheel and tyre package and multiple Abarth scorpion badges.
Inside, it’s even more pronounced.
There’s a thick-rimmed, flat-bottom Abarth steering wheel and a superb-to-touch metal shifter ball, but the killer additions are the leather-trimmed Sabelt racing seats that look as good as those in the 458 Ferrari Italia. Viva Italia!
Even the rear seats feature additional bolstering to keep everyone in place for those more enthusiastic sessions.
Right from the get-go the Competizione feels properly sporty. It’s got an especially raucous engine note from the moment you kick it over that doesn’t back off thanks to that new exhaust system, and the extra punch above the regular 500 models is significant, especially in the first three gears.
This feisty Italian will hit 100km/h in 7.4sec (7.6 for the semi-auto), but you’ll need to tap the Sport button - which increases throttle response and adds eight to the steering - if you want the fireworks that come with that. There’s a laugh-inducing crackle on each upshift when you’ve got the throttle pinned, and the exhaust note takes on an even meaner character.
It’s a lot of fun blasting across twisty roads in the Abarth, as there’s just so much more power on offer making for quicker exits out corners. Mid-range acceleration is also surprisingly strong, so the new 7.0-inch instrument cluster with the oversize digital speedo might be a real licence-saver with this pint-sized pocket rocket.
Sure, the Abarth has a stiffer, more firmly tuned suspension setup, but even over what were particularly rough roads on the test route, the ride quality is quite good for such a lightweight car.
The Abarth also feels more confident at pace through the twisties than the 500S, thanks to more tyre contact patch from the wider 205/40 R17 tyres. The stiffer suspension and lower ride height further limits body roll even on tighter turn-ins.
As with the Fiat 500 models before it, the 2015 version is still a car that you purchase with your heart, rather than your head.
Despite the new digital screen, the ergonomics are still flawed and the materials look more expensive than they probably are.
But that doesn’t mean it’s still not one of the cutest and coolest cars around that will continue to put a smile on your face every time you’re behind the wheel.
And the case is even stronger with the sportier Abarth models - especially for those who like their style with a little more substance.