If ever there was an example of modern retro done right, it would have to be the current Fiat 500C.
While it’s definitely bigger than the original 1957 Nuova and no longer uses an air-cooled rear-engine layout, the diminutive 2016 ‘Cinquecento’ is still cute, cool, and distinctly Italian.
And keep in mind, a retro re-release isn’t an easy thing to pull off.
Fiat claims the latest Series Four makeover gets some 1800 modifications, but I defy even the hard-core 500 aficionados to spot those parts beyond the freshly styled bumpers and front and rear light assemblies. It’s only once you’re inside that the changes become more evident.
After all, it’s the styling, and styling alone that has always attracted buyers to the little Fiat. I know this, because even in a big-car-town such as Los Angeles, where parking spaces are huge, traffic lanes are wide and fuel is cheap, 500s seem more commonplace than anywhere in the world. Same goes for the Mini.
Don’t get me wrong, the Fiat 500 in whatever guise is still very much a niche car, usually purchased when passion triumphs over pragmatism. Mind, it might be small, but after living with it for the best part of two weeks, I found it to be the perfect sized package to tackle life in the big city.
Unfortunately, it’s no longer the bargain buy it used to be. Gone are the days when you could drive away in the entry-level Pop for as little as $14,000. The latest 2016 version comes with a significant $4000 price hike to $18,000 or $19,000 drive-away - not exactly cheap and cheerful, but still cheaper than the competition.
Along with the update comes less choice in the new 500 line up, a result of Fiat Australia deciding to ditch the mid-spec Sport variant in favour of just two trim levels; Pop and top-shelf Lounge.
Opt for the 500C Lounge, as per our tester, and you’ll need to stump up $26,000 for the drive-away deal. But here’s the thing, the Cabriolet undercuts some key cross-shopping rivals by more than $10,000.
By way of comparison, the 1.5-litre Mini Cooper two-door is priced from $37,900 (plus on-roads), while the 1.6-litre Citroen DS3 two-door Cabrio starts from $36,590. Both are a size larger, however, so for those considering these options, it will be a point of price versus space.
The news is even better for those choosing Fiat’s entry 500C Pop, which can be had, drive-away, from as little as $22,000, making it hands down the cheapest convertible in Australia.
Whereas the previous Lounge was saddled with a 0.9-litre two-cylinder turbo petrol, this new version gets a more powerful 1.4-litre four-cylinder, which makes 74kW of power and 131Nm of torque.
It doesn’t seem like much, I know, but the 500 tips the scales at slightly less than a tonne – and thankfully our test car was paired with the standard six-speed manual transmission and not the optional Dualogic auto, which gives new meaning to the term stop/start.
It’s a wonderfully user-friendly shift action, and the pedal box architecture allows for proper heel and toe downshifts, so it’s still a lot of fun to drive despite it’s small displacement.
Power delivery is smooth and linear, but don’t expect to win any red light drags. There’s not a lot happening below 3500-4000rpm. But above that, there’s sufficient punch to really start enjoying the car – especially in the city and suburbia, and only in Sport. Forget about the standard drive setting forever.
You’ll also need to wind it up to at least 5000rpm in first gear if you want to avoid being bogged down in second, which is quite a tall gear. That said, unless you’re crawling along in the peak-hour grind you’ll soon get used to driving with a decidedly lead foot in search for higher revs – the more, the better.
Naturally, this inescapable driving style means you won’t get close to Fiat’s claim of 6.1 litres per 100 kilometres for the manual (5.8L for the Dualogic) in the real world – more like 8.6L.
It’s a different story on the highway, where the 500’s lack of grunt means the revs are always up (even in sixth) and the subsequent engine noise becomes more than a tad irritating after a while.
But against its main rivals, the 500 (even in this Cabriolet guise) is still the most responsive available in Australia right now (the incoming new Mini cabrio may be a different story, however). It handles well, corners flat, and the steering is relatively quick and precise.
I’m a big fan of the cue-ball-size shifter knob, and the fact that the shifter itself is positioned half way up the centre console – just like the Alfa Spider I once owned.
Several colleagues were complaining about the oversize steering wheel (ordinarily I would have joined them), but this leather wrapped example is suitably tactile and there’s good feedback, so I’m a fan.
Forward vision is simply superb. There’s a lot of glass surrounding the cabin and the front seats are perched high off the floor, providing the driver with a commanding view of the road ahead.
Not so good is the rear view, which is compromised, especially when the roof is lowered as it doesn’t sit low enough like metal folding hardtops that retract further into the boot and allow unencumbered rear vision.
At just 3.5 meters in length, the Fiat 500 is a cinch to park – well almost. Tight streets can be a problem due to the car’s deplorable turning circle.
Cabin space isn’t bad at all for such a tiny car, with plenty of room up front and sufficient legroom down back - even for adults, at least on shorter trips.
The optional leather trim that our tester came with makes all the difference when it comes to seat comfort over the standard cloth versions, so we’d definitely recommend them as part of the Perfezionare pack ($2500) that also adds 16-inch alloys (up from 15s) and Xenon headlamps.
The 50:50 split-fold rear seats almost resemble an old school bench, so if you’re like me and find the boot space too small for anything bar a few grocery bags, use the bench even for large suitcases – tried and tested.
And if you happen to open the boot lid when the top is down, the roof will automatically raise itself to the point where you can properly access the space – it’s definitely a neat function on the cabrio.
The distinctively retro formula has also been applied to the cockpit, and clearly pays homage to Dante Giacosa’s 1957 original design, complete with body-coloured dash panels and centrally-mounted instrument display.
On the open-air 500C Lounge that includes an easy-to-read 7.0-inch TFT instrument cluster with a super-size speed display - top and centre. But apart from this there isn’t a lot you haven’t seen before, besides Fiat Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment system.
It’s certainly a welcome addition, incorporating features such as Bluetooth phone with voice command, music streaming and satellite navigation. The screen itself though, measures just five inches and looks a bit cheap - if not retro itself.
There’s also no rear-view screen (it’s not even an option), but you do get rear parking sensors, given the limited rear vision with the roof open. Other creature comforts include central locking, electric windows and door mirrors, and heated glass rear window with wiper function.
Safety features include seven airbags (including full-length curtain for both seat rows and driver’s knee), Isofix anchor points, tyre-pressure monitoring system, LED daytime running lights and hill hold functionality.
Wherever you go in a 500C, you’re bound to attract plenty of attention, that includes the guy in the Rolls-Royce Ghost who clearly liked what he saw the other day - and who wouldn’t?
It’s certainly not the most economical city car on the market, nor is it the most practical. But it’s stylish, impossibly cute and pure-bred Italian. It also captures the essence of an original model better than any other modern-retro design. It’s also a whole lot of fun, and I miss it already.