2016 Fiat 500 Review

Around since 2008, the iconic Fiat 500 has been updated once again, headlined by new tech and a revised line-up...
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At a metric smidge over 3.5 metres long, the Fiat 500 is the smallest four-seat passenger car on sale in Australia. Launched locally in 2008, the first-generation (new) 500 is also one of the market’s oldest offerings. Now, though, a fresh update for 2016 breathes new life and injects some modern touches into the iconic Italian city slicker.

Along with a revised four-model range, now comprising two, instead of three trim grades – the entry-level Pop and flagship Lounge – the 2016 Fiat 500 brings with it some new styling and new equipment.

Announced last week, pricing for the base 1.2-litre five-speed manual Pop is up $2000 to $18,000 (before on-road costs), with the range-topping 1.4-litre Lounge now starting $1000 less than before, at $21,000 (before on-road costs). Opt for the 500’s outdated five-speed Dualogic ‘robotised manual’ (automatic) gearbox and it’ll add $1500 to the mix. Keen for the 500 Cabrio? That’s another $4000.

Starting a fair whack cheaper than it did in 2008 ($22,990), the 2016 Fiat 500 Pop is a way off its June 2013-spec price of $14,000 driveaway. Apart from packing it full of more gear, however, as a sweetener, Fiat Australia is currently offering driveaway pricing across the new-look 500 line-up, adding $1000 to all previously mentioned list prices.

Exterior revisions for 2016 are subtle but include new headlights and tail-lights, LED daytime running lights, new front and rear bumpers, and a revised front grille. Lounge versions feature ‘chrome-effect buttons’ for the new grille, as well as additional chrome accents on the front grille surround, windows, sill plates and rear bumper.

Both the trim levels come with a new leather-wrapped steering wheel with updated audio controls, a six-speaker stereo, manual climate controls, heated power mirrors and 15-inch alloy wheels.

Headlining the interior revisions is the model-first inclusion of a 5.0-inch Uconnect touchscreen. Supporting Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming, voice recognition and text-to-voice technology, as well as DAB+ digital radio and USB and auxiliary functionality, the unit adds a trip computer to the outgoing Pop and satellite navigation to the previous Lounge.

The entry-level Pop gets basic two-tone cloth seat upholstery for its non-height adjustable 500-stamped seats, while the top-spec Lounge comes standard with a seat-base height adjuster for the driver’s seat, ‘premium’ check-patterned seat upholstery, and map pockets. Lounge models also gain a fixed glass roof (with a manual blind) and rear parking sensors – although, despite the new touchscreen, a rear-view camera is not standard or optional on either trim specification.

Ensuring customer customisation remains a hallmark of the Fiat 500, for 2016, there are 13 different exterior colours, 10 interior combinations and three different soft-top roof colours on offer. Further, two new colours, ‘Coral’ and ‘Bordeaux’, join six pastel ($500) and five metallic ($500) paint choices respectively, leaving a sole $1000 tri-coat finish for big spenders.

In a bid to get a taste of the entire 2016 Fiat 500 range at the local launch in Victoria, we manage to briefly sample both engines, both transmissions and both body styles.

First up, we jump into the $21,000 1.4-litre Fiat 500 Lounge, and head from Melbourne’s inner east to outer north.

Teaming a 74kW/131Nm 1.4-litre four-cylinder with a six-speed manual, our Sole Yellow hardtop 500 Lounge feels right at home negotiating tram tracks, narrow streets and chicanes, and 40-60km/h zones.

Previously powered by the now-dropped 63kW/145Nm turbocharged 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir engine (in exclusive combination with the carried-over five-speed automatic), the new Lounge is a sound reminder of just how much fun a small, light, manual hatchback can be to punt around.

The ride of the new Fiat 500 Series 4 initially feels more settled, planted and composed than that of the previous Series 3, with the updated car being somewhat more mature and refined on all but the choppiest of outer-Melbourne back roads.

The sub-1000kg city car still has the same entertainingly ‘bouncy’ on-road character as those that have come before it, although this partners well with light and accurate steering, and a slick and engaging six-speed manual transmission.

Despite being the most powerful engine in the micro car segment (Abarth models aside), with peak torque not available until 4250rpm, the Lounge’s naturally aspirated 1.4-litre four-pot is a little underwhelming off the mark.

Once on the move, though, and with revs above 2500rpm, the unit delivers acceptable punch and ‘zip’. Push the Lounge’s ‘Sport’ button and, while weight is added to the steering, the throttle is also noticeably sharpened, providing some additional eagerness.

Claiming to drink 6.1 litres of premium unleaded every 100km, the FIRE 1.4 can’t match the 3.9L/100km-claim of the Lounge’s previous MultiAir unit. It did, however, average 6.8L/100km over our short time with the car.

Swapping from the basic but comfortable front seat into the snug but adequate back seat, tyre and road noise is still a near constant, particularly over the wet urban and coarse-chip country roads experienced on the launch – this is despite Fiat claiming additional soundproofing for the updated 500’s wheelhouses and firewall.

Next up, we trial the range’s entry point, the smaller capacity 1.2-litre 500 Pop.

With one less ratio fitted to its manual transmission, our ‘Coral’ five-speed Pop is powered by a 51kW/102Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder.

Down on outputs compared with the Lounge, the 1.2-litre Pop is still equally happy being hustled through twisties or trundling along at between 60-80km/h. Claiming 4.9L/100km, we also net an average of 5.8L/100km for our 60km-plus drive.

Oddly, rather than feeling like a traditionally linear naturally aspirated engine, the non-turbo FIRE 1.2 – much like its larger 1.4-litre sibling – is attached to decidedly ‘laggy’ response below 2500rpm. Fortunately, with peak torque coming in from bang on 3000rpm, you’re not waiting too much longer for decent shove to arrive. That said, you do need to drive all manual 500s with an understanding of the appropriate gear for any given speed, to avoid being caught out with minimal forward movement.

Compared with the new Lounge, the updated Pop’s lower spec level is obvious.

Gone is the Lounge’s digital seven-inch TFT instrument cluster (introduced on the Series 3), traded instead for an analogue speedometer and tachometer, and basic readouts for fuel, engine temperature, date and time. The ‘Sport’ button is replaced with a button to further lighten the 500’s steering to a ‘City’ setting. And the Uconnect screen’s ‘Nav’ button (and its attached feature) is changed to a ‘Trip’ button that brings up the usual journey-related data.

Missing from either trim level, however, are cruise control, steering wheel reach adjustment, an engine start button, and an auto up/down passenger power window.

Annoyingly too, just like in the Series 3, the 500’s air conditioner ‘On’ light – mounted inside the fan speed switch – is difficult to see in daylight, there’s still nowhere ideal to put a phone, and the cup holders on offer are all unhelpfully shallow. On the plus side, for the Series 4 iteration, Fiat has added a new lidded glove box.

Completing our trio, our last drive for the day is the full European experience: the 500C Lounge.

Employing the same 1.4-litre as the fixed roof Lounge, our automatic Sole Yellow convertible launch car tips the as-tested scales at $29,500 (before on-road costs), with pastel paint ($500), the Dualogic transmission ($1500), and a Perfezionare pack ($2500) all on board – the latter adding xenon headlights, leather upholstery, and 16-inch alloy wheels.

Unfortunately, as was the case in both 2013 and 2014, the sub-par five-speed ‘auto’ is, again, a borderline deal breaker – except, of course, for the fact that if you can’t or don’t want to change gears yourself, it’s the only alternative.

Sapping much of the Italian micro's entertainment value, the robotised manual takes forever to disengage one gear and engage the next, while at the same time, making those changes between ratios laughably obvious.

You can flick the shifter over to ‘manual’ mode which, in partnership with some sneaky and well-timed throttle lifts, makes cog swaps far more palatable. However, if you’re looking for paddle shifters tucked in behind the steering wheel, you won’t find any. In the 500, you just get a basic half-chrome stick that you push up for downshifts and pull down for upshifts.

Despite being paired to the troublesome auto ‘box, the 1.4-litre engine still delivers enough pep and motivation to keep smiles on faces. It also returned 7.2L/100km for our limited launch drive in the 500C.

Even after a short time at the wheel, it’s clear the drop-top - which packs a 40kg weight penalty for convertible motoring - lacks the stability, composure and rigidity of its tin-topped twin.

Scuttle shake is hard not to notice and, possibly unhelped by our launch car’s larger 16-inch wheels and lower-profile Continental rubber, the 500C is easily unsettled and can become quite skittish over choppy surfaces.

Safety does remain a strong point across the 500 range, however.

For 2016, the Pop gains larger front brake discs and bigger calipers, and all models come standard with seven airbags (front, window and side airbags, and a driver's knee airbag), electronic stability control (ESC), hill-hold assist, and a tyre pressure monitoring system. Both rear seats also house ISOFIX child seat anchor points.

The Fiat 500’s three-year/150,000km warranty is better than those attached to the Nissan Micra and Suzuki Celerio – priced from $13,490 and $12,990, respectively – but falls two years short of that for the top-selling micro, the Mitsubishi Mirage – priced from $11,990. The Fiat’s does cover an additional 50,000km compared with the Mitsubishi’s, however, and all 500s benefit from three years roadside assist – Mirages only coming with one year.

Mopar menu-priced services are scheduled for ever 12 months or 15,000km, though, Fiat Australia says details of these fixed-price services are still to be announced.

The Fiat 500 has never been a car for the discerning buyer: it’s a purchase based on style, fashion and emotion.

Lucky too, because in the current, highly competitive, new-car climate, it would get crossed off any discerning buyer’s list fairly abruptly, given you can get into a segment larger Honda Jazz, Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris, or Volkswagen Polo for less than the 500 Pop’s starting price. All four of which, also come equipped with not only cruise control, but also a rear-view camera.

The Fiat 500 is not the newest light car on the block, nor the most comprehensively equipped, nor the most sharply priced. But if Italian chic and run-about thrills are your flavour, the updated 2016 Fiat 500 remains a bene scelta (a good choice).

Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Fiat 500 images by David Zalstein.

More: 2016 Fiat 500, 500C pricing and specifications