What is it?
City cars are normally at their best when best-suited to the stop-start torment of urban traffic. So is the new Fiat 500, recently showered in glory in not-one-but-two Autocar supermini group tests, even better with two pedals, rather than a five-speed manual gearbox? Also, are its charms diminished by Fiat's 69bhp 1.2-litre motor, in place of the 99bhp 1.4 we've already tested? We were among the first in the world to find out, at the 500 Dualogic’s Japanese launch last week.
First, a technical distinction. This five-speed Dualogic auto-shifter isn’t actually a proper torque converter auto: it’s a robotised manual. Proper auto ‘boxes rarely appear on cars like the 500, as they’re expensive, they would sap power from what’s a small engine anyway, and they’re reasonably difficult to package in one so diminutive.
What’s it like?
Like the ‘box in the Smart Fortwo and the BMW M5, this unit doesn’t creep forward when you engage ‘D’: it picks up drive only when you press the throttle. It also refuses to engage at all unless you’ve got your foot on the brake; in the hustle and bustle of the city, that can slow you down and frustrate you.
Although it makes for slower getaways from a standstill than the manual, this ‘box swaps cogs reasonably quickly and smoothly on the move. In our test car it developed some extra vibration and harshness on the overrun, but only after a very extended drive. For the most part, it’s evidence that robotised manuals are getting better.
Unfortunately, the 1.2-litre engine it was mated with in our test car wasn't the ideal partner. Its 75lb ft of torque is marginally more manful than its 69bhp, but neither make this car relaxing or effortless to drive in urban rush hour. You have to be quick on the throttle to make sure that you don't get left behind at traffic lights, and often have to work the engine hard to keep up with the flow. And as the noisy thrash of pistons once you get about 3500rpm bears testament, that's something that isn't particularly quiet, or pleasant, to have to do.
Should I buy one?
Probably not. Fiat’s Dualogic ‘box may improve with every installation we test, but it’s still not good enough overall to warrant paying £700 extra for.
If you spend absolutely all of your time in nightmare traffic, or just find the idea of a third pedal too repellent to contemplate, it may be a better option for you than a 500 manual - just. However, most of us can still do a better job of swapping cogs, and responding to the cut-and-thrust of metropolitan commuting, ourselves than this gearbox can on our behalf.
Opting for the 1.2-litre manual 500 would be a more sensible course of action, given that it would be quicker off the mark, more refined, and it would bring the price down to £7900. At that level, this is a stylish, desirable and cool supermini that's yours for less than the price of the cheapest Citroen C2 - which is none of the above.