First the Volkswagen Beetle, then the Mini and now the Fiat 500. With all, the script is the same: a small, cheap, utilitarian car that became iconic through its engineering purity and brilliance. Years later, the model is relaunched as a heavily styled object, with the emphasis on premium build and desirability.
The original Nova 500 was so basic that it was conceived partly as an alternative to a scooter. There was one engine option and it had just two seats (at launch), plus suicide doors. By comparison, pour over the options list of the latest 500 and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of different ways of specifying the car.
But despite the obvious emphasis on novelty and design with this type of car, done properly the appeal need not necessarily subside. Because it’s solidly built and great to drive, the 500 has morphed successfully into a second-generation car. Credit Fiat for not being stubborn with the Fiat 500, and witnessing an opportunity, in the same vein as Mini, and expanded the 500 range to include the 500L, 500L MPW, a convertible and the 500X, so its cute retro styling has certainly been very well received.
First shown in 2007, 50 years after the launch of the Cinquecento that inspired it, the 500 has proved a hit for Fiat, pulling in sales and hugely improving the brand’s image. But don't think this car is all about retro - the TwinAir version is easily the most mechanically radical member in the line-up, its two-cylinder motor introducing Fiat’s acclaimed MultiAir valve system in the 500 for the first time. In 2015, this retro re-run was given a much needed facelift which apparently saw 1900 changes made to Fiat's winning formula - most noticeably tweaks to the headlights, tail lights and bumpers.
At the top of the range, Fiat got its tuning house Abarth to sprinkle its magic over the 500 and subsquently created the 595, 595 Turismo and 595 Competizione. As you would expect, each model gets more aggressive and sporty as you go through the range, while the track-day engineered 695 Biposto remained on the pre-facelift model.
All engine variants and trim levels can also be had as a convertible, but command a significant premium over their tin-top equivalents.
So, is the new 500 more than style over substance?