What is it?
It’s the Fiat 500 hatch, updated for 2014 with a new engine and a fresh range-topping trim level.
Fiat would be crackers to curse the 500 with a full-on facelift; although it’s seven years since the modern 500 was launched, its market share was the same in 2013 as during the car’s first full year on sale. When it comes to styling, the 500 definitely ain’t broke. So cosmetic changes to the existing trim levels are limited to new paintwork, alloy wheel and upholstery choices.
But there is a new flagship 500 in the form of the Cult model. It’s expected to cost around £1500 more than the plushest existing trim, Lounge, when it goes on sale in April.
The premium adds gloss black trim around the rear lights and on the door mirrors (which can be chromed instead at no charge), 16in alloys to replace the Lounge’s 15s, rear parking sensors, seats finished in Frau leather and a colourful new 7-inch TFT screen directly ahead of the driver in place of analogue dials. The Cult model also boasts climate control, which is only included with TwinAir Lounge variants (Lounge four-pots get conventional air-con as standard).
Bigger news for the likes of us is the introduction of a pokier, 104bhp version of the 0.9-litre TwinAir turbo that ekes an extra 20bhp from the tiny trooper of an engine and will be available with all trim levels for a premium of around £700 over the 84bhp variant. Torque remains at 107lb ft, but 0-62bhp takes a second less at 10.0sec and top speed rises by 9mph.
The addition of a sixth gear means claimed extra urban economy improves by 2.2mpg to an impressive 80.7mpg, but the urban cycle uses around 15 per cent more fuel than the lower-powered car at 51.4mpg – a bit of a worry given our road test of the original TwinAir barely managed half its official combined economy figure. The 104bhp model also gets uprated brakes: newly ventilated discs up front and solid discs in place of the 84bhp car’s rear drums.
What's it like?
The Cult’s interior party tricks are generally welcome. The leather seats are firm-ish and grip well around the thighs, but up close, the printed ‘tobacco’ pattern on our car looked a tad low-tariff. The TFT screen (which will also become standard with sporty S trim) is a tidy installation, and shows a pumping vertical bar-chart boost gauge (as well as turning from white to red) in the TwinAir’s sport mode.
When you fire up the Fiat you’re in easy-going Eco mode by default, meaning the 104bhp maximum drops to 97bhp and torque falls to 89lb ft, which is fine for bumbling along. If you’ve any room to play, you’ll want to tap up Sport mode right away. So configured, you’ll feel the engine pause for a moment then shoot up the rev range as the turbo kicks in, accompanied by a sound of a dirty harmonica from the engine bay.
It’s great fun, and makes the 500 feel much quicker than its 0-62mph stat would imply, but before you know it the rev limiter cuts in (at 6000rpm in third, even lower in first and second), prompting a (slightly obtrusive) upshift that drops you into a torque trough. Pause, surge, repeat. For some, this routine might wear thin.
There’s no actual torque steer, but the wheel does firm up with throttle, becoming unnaturally weighty just off-centre. Like the steering, the largely accommodating ride is comfort-oriented rather than sporty, but roll is checked nicely – a happy compromise that contrasts with the overly firm Abarth models.
Should I buy one?
If anything, Fiat's 104bhp TwinAir is even more a niche choice than the 84bhp version, its joys and frustrations being that much more pronounced.
Then there’s the worry of potentially lowly economy for users that drive more in town than anywhere else. My instinct is that luxury-loving buyers of Cult spec would prefer to pair it with a less frenzied drivetrain, such as the impressively refined 1.3 MultiJet diesel.
But younger drivers tempted by the cheapest Abarth model could save around £700 – plus a chunk of insurance premium – by speccing the 104bhp TwinAir with sporty S trim, and be rewarded with a more usable proposition that entertains in its own way.
Fiat 500 Cult 0.9 TwinAir 105
Price £15,000 (est); 0-62mph 10.0sec; Top speed 117mph; Economy 67.3mpg; CO2 99g/km; Kerb weight 940kg; Engine 2 cyls, 875cc, turbo, petrol; Power 104bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 107lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual