All cars have their weaknesses, even when they're newly-released class benchmarks. As the years roll by and competitors relentlessly release new models, these weaknesses only become increasingly magnified. This is bad news for the Fiat 500S that I'm reviewing here – a car that has now been on the market for eight long years. So judged against a cold set of rational criteria, it has many faults.
Its most obvious limitation is its size. It's small. Very small. Some NBA players wear shoes bigger than the 500. Because of this, you won't command much respect on our X5-clogged roads. You certainly won't be able to drive for Uber, because while it does have a back seat, it's very tight back there, and unlike its competitors, there is no five-door version. The boot is only 182 litres so using it to move house – or even make a trip to IKEA – is out of the question. Also, the seating position is set too high and the cabin is very narrow, so you're going to be rubbing elbows with your front seat passenger – especially if you're taller than 180cm.
But here's the thing - the 500, perhaps more so than anything else on the road, manages to turn its negatives into endearing character traits.
Let's take the fact that because of its size, you won't be taken very seriously on the road. That doesn't sound great, but instead of commanding fear and respect from fellow motorists, you are treated to smiles and waves. Because it doesn't have much interior or boot space, it introduces a bit of Zen into your life by encouraging you to travel light and not lug around all sorts of useless junk. Because you sit up high, at eye-level with those driving standard sized cars, you don't necessarily feel vulnerable driving a car that weighs less than a tonne. And because you end up sitting so close to your front seat passenger, they are able to lovingly place their hand on your knee during Sunday drives – great if your passenger is your partner but less great if it's your uncle Richard.
The 500's 1.4l, normally aspirated four-cylinder engine generates a ho-hum 74kW of power and 131Nm of torque. Not eye-popping numbers, I'm sure you'll agree. But its infectious character, coupled with its light weight and power delivery achieves a delicate balance between enabling pedal-to-the-metal driving without breaking speed limits, while at the same time providing enough zest to easily keep up with traffic. The gearbox action is slick and tactile for a car in the $20k-ish price bracket and despite the somewhat widely placed pedals, heal-and-toe downshifts are possible for the committed. The raspy little motor evokes memories of feisty little Italian cars from decades gone past by sounding like a wasps' nest on wheels. In the way it drives, it is a car that seems to constantly shout “I can, I can, I can! I'm small, but I can!” The little Fiat grabs boring urban roads by their shoulders, gives them a shake and converts them into fun.
As you'd expect, away from the urban environment, the 500 feels a bit out of its depth. On freeways, its NVH levels are clearly worse than the benchmarks of the class. The lack of cruise control, coupled with a throttle that is too sensitive, makes maintaining a constant speed a much bigger chore than it ought to be. The steering is a little lacking in weight, feel and precision when tackling higher-speed corners. While the ride never feels out of control, it will bob around a bit, thanks to its short wheelbase – especially when faced with undulations and mid-corner bumps. But again, in what has become a recurring theme, the slightly choppy ride, which is undesirable in other cars, is smile-inducing in the 500 because… it's a 500.
So it's clear that the little Fiat is far from perfect. But it finds so many ways to revel in its imperfections while delivering unexpected morsels of driving pleasure that you can't help but fall in love with it every time you get behind the wheel. No, it doesn't make sense from a purely rational choice – it's too small, too impractical, too noisy and too old. There are ‘better' cars for $20k with VW, Mazda and Ford badges on them, but no other car will make you smile as much for as little. And if that's important to you, the 500 has no real competition in its market segment.