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The 500 is a deserved success story for Fiat, offering bags of style, a fine drive and low costs

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 Fiat 500 and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of different ways of specifying the car.

First shown in 2007, 50 years after the launch of the Cinquecento that inspired it, the 500 has proved a hit for Fiat

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 Fiat 500L, Fiat 500L MPW, Fiat 500 convertible and the Fiat 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.

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Fiat 500 engine line-up and trim levels

At the top of the range, Fiat got its tuning house Abarth to sprinkle its magic over the 500 and subsquently created the Abarth 595, 595 Turismo and Abarth 595 Competizione. As you would expect, each model gets more aggressive and sporty as you go through the range, while the track-day engineered Abarth 695 Biposto remained on the pre-facelift model.

In the standard Fiat 500 range, which is non-electric - there is also a Fiat 500 of the same name which is electric-only, confusingly. There are five trims available: Sport, Red, Hey Google, Dolcevita, Connect and Pop. All trims are also available in the convertible variant. There is now only one engine available for the 500 - a 1.0-litre 68bhp mild hybrid.

So, is the new 500 more than style over substance?

More on the Fiat 500

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Fiat 500 rear

Initially, design is what sells the Fiat 500. The proportions of the original have been replicated here, which is an achievement in itself, given that the original was a two-seater with an air-cooled engine in the back, and this is a four-seater with a water-cooled engine, mounted more conventionally in the front.

The 500 is obviously a successor to the 1957 car, but not slavishly so. It didn’t, for instance, have secondary lights below the round headlights like the modern car. It didn’t have to contend with Euro NCAP crash tests, either; that the 500 manages a five-star rating is testament to Fiat’s engineers.

The Fiat 500 remains one of the most desirable city cars on the market

Lines down the current 500’s bonnet are reminiscent of the original Cinquecento, although back in the day it was just a chrome rubbing strip down the lid’s middle. Manufacturing techniques back then wouldn’t have allowed such crisp folds as this. The facelift gave the 500 more prominient headlights and rear lights, but doesn't ultimately alter the small Fiat's allure.

Despite the 500’s diminutive length, parking sensors are still available to protect the bulbous rear end. The bumper looks neater without them and they’re not really necessary on the hatch, but they’re more useful on the convertible; when the roof is down it’s tricky to judge where the rear of the car stops.

Those looking for other nods to the original may like to look at the top-end Lounge trim, which gets you a fixed glass-roof panel (with a blind) of much the same proportions as the hole in the roof provided by the ’57 500’s fabric, flip-back top. For a fraction of the cost of the convertible, with its part-folding soft-top, you can have the glass roof panel open electrically.

The Abarth versions get big side skirts and bumpers, a tasty rear spoiler and what looks like a venturi at the back. Fiat has ticked all the boxes of the modern performance car cliché to give the 500 a bit of aggression – although, like watching an angry animal, it is hard to take Fiat Abarth 595 Abarth totally seriously as it slips deeper into hot-hatchback caricature.

Fiat 500 interior

Whether you choose the standard car or convertible, the inside of the Fiat 500 has been just as thoughtfully designed as its outside. A swage of body-coloured plastic sweeps across the centre of the dash, bordered by Bakelite-style switch panels for the ventilation and stereo controls.

Fabrics and colours could all be from the 1950s, but the quality of the construction is not. Fit and finish are very good, although some switches lack the bespoke feel of, say, a Mini's. This is unsurprising; the dash layouts of a Fiat Panda and a 500 are virtually the same because they share so much mechanically and electrically.

The steering wheel is too far away from taller drivers and it adjusts for rake only, not reach

There's no shortage of space in the front, but the 500’s design gave engineers a bigger challenge in making room for rear passengers. The 1957 car's roof curved towards the rear to intentionally reduce space behind the front seats, to help differentiate it from the four-seat 600. Even later 500s had rear seats that were only fit for children.

Yet today's car, which is only 3.5 metres long, was designed as a full four-seater from the off, so you sit low in the 500's back pair of chairs, on thin but dense padding, and headroom is still tight. That said, legroom is surprisingly good for a car this short and it's certainly more accommodating than some rivals. Beneath a very small parcel shelf there is a 185-litre boot.

There are three trim levels to choose from for both the 500 and Fiat 500C - Pop, Popstar and Lounge. The entry-level Pop models come with LED day-running-lights, Fiat's Uconnect infotainment system with USB connectivity, and height adjustable steering, while upgrading to the limelight and the Pop Star trim will see the additions of air conditioning and rear splitting seats.

The range-topping Lounge models come with luxuries such as a fixed panel glass roof, rear parking sensors, fog lights, DAB radio and Bluetooth all included as standard.

The Abarth models are a slightly different breed and, as you might expect, come with all the sporting pretensions expected from a hot-hatch-cum-track-day-special. They all come with the same 1.4-litre Tjet engine, but each produce a different output - 143bhp, 163bhp and 178bhp for the 595, Turismo and Competizione respectively.

With the Abarth it’s clear that Fiat wants you to be in no doubt that you’re inside an Abarth than a regular Fiat. The general cabin layout is very similar to the normal 500, of course, but in the detailing it’s pure Abarth. At least, what Fiat perceives a modern Abarth to be, and that means bucket seats, alloy pedals, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, a turbo boost gauge/shift indicator and a Sport button on the dash.

Fiat 500 side profile

How much performance does a city car like the Fiat 500 need? In our view, there should be enough low-down eagerness to nip assertively through traffic, and sufficient reserves to keep up with the flow on the occasional trip further afield.

The 1.2-litre, the lowest powered engine in the range, develops just 68bhp and makes for slow getaways from standstill, but can cope with urban roads without too much trouble. Watch out for a slow throttle response, though; you have to be quick on the gas to avoid getting left behind at the lights.

The TwinAir engine is enchanting, but drive it hard and fuel consumption drops off a cliff

Higher up is the 0.9-litre TwinAir producing 83bhp, with the innovative two-cylinder able to hit 107mph. More than that, though, its strong torque and willingness to rev produce enough go to entertain, especially as there’s an intriguingly pleasing soundtrack to go with it.

At the very top of the ladder sits the Abarth versions. As standard, the 1.4-litre Abarth develops 138bhp at 5500rpm while the Turismo is tweaked to produce 163bhp, but in Competizione form it gets 183bhp and up to 170lb ft. There are no serious mechanical changes to achieve the greater power, but there’s a new air filter and the ECU has been remapped.

Fiat 500 cornering

The Fiat 500’s chassis used to be its weakest link, a choppy ride and rather ordinary handling a disappointing contrast to the polished appeal of the rest of the car. But with the debut of the soft-top Fiat 500C in 2010 came some suspension changes, mostly affecting the rear axle, which have done much to civilise this baby Fiat.

The sudden, occasionally bouncing progress – particularly acute aboard the sportier models – has mostly been banished, and small bumps are absorbed without much turbulence reaching the cabin. You sometimes feel the 500’s short wheelbase as it pitches over crests and into troughs, but the effect is far less disturbing than it used to be, and even the bigger 16in wheels don’t agitate the ride too much. The suspension is also quiet, there being less crash-through and road noise than you find in some cars of this class, all of which makes the 500 easier to live with than before.

The TwinAir is only 5kg lighter than the four-cylinder 1.4 Lounge hatch on our scales - a surprise

Also improved is the Fiat's electric power steering. It’s still not much of a communicator, but at least its artificial resistance feels more real, and without too much of the straight-ahead deadness that EPAS systems often suffer. Switch to City mode and the steering feels only semi-connected, but the effort required is certainly low.

The 500 handles better now, too. It feels far more settled with the reduced bounce, and that encourages you to corner harder, as does the crisper steering.

A firm ride in a hot hatch is something we can put up with, as long as the trade-off is sharp composure and handling. Here the Abarth is very good. On smooth roads it feels nailed to the surface, with little roll and a solidity that, say, a sporty Mini can’t match for the moment.

The Abarth steers well, too; the electrically assisted helm is quick, accurate and well weighted, albeit with a hint of springiness around the straight ahead and a touch of torque steer.

Fiat 500 review hero front

Residual values for the Fiat 500 have stayed strong and you should expect to get back close to half of what you paid after three years. That’s not up at Mini levels, but it’s pretty good. Other ownership costs are competitive, too. Mechanically this is a Fiat Panda underneath, and that car has proved reliable, which bodes well for the longevity of a new 500.

Fuel consumption is very reasonable from the evidence of our tests; you should manage to achieve the 49.6 urban mpg without too much trouble in the 1.2-litre petrol.

The TwinAir might be pitched as an eco alternative, but we found a huge difference between the claimed and actual fuel consumption. Driving style is key

The TwinAir used to dodge road tax with its 95g/km of Co2, but stricter legislation means it is no longer exempt. The 35mpg fuel consumption we achieved in our tests is very disappointing compared with the official 68.9mpg figure, even if its performance is strong. If your annual mileage is low, that will matter less. If it’s higher, consider the Multijet diesel instead.

Unlike many convertibles where extra weight is an issue, Fiat claims identical economy and emissions figures for the 500C as the hard-top car. Insurance groups are competitive, and although a three-year warranty is average now, the 500 is a well assembled car with a good reliability record.The 500 is well equipped, with no fewer than seven airbags helping it to score the full NCAP five stars. The Lounge trim is our pick and comes with electric front windows, a fixed part-glass roof, air conditioning, a leather-rimmed wheel with controls for the stereo, and a Bluetooth system.


Fiat 500 rear quarter

It’s not hard to understand the popularity of the Fiat 500. The style it exudes on the outside is carried through to its cabin; it's a charming car that also feels well built.

The 500 appeals as a finely wrought, thoroughly practical evocation of the original 500, and backs that up with a good finish and tempting customisation options. In the case of the TwinAir it appeals with advanced engineering as well, its two-cylinder engine putting out the power and torque of a diesel, but with more refinement. It makes an intriguing noise that will stir memories among those who remember old 500s. But in reality, this engine fails to get near the official consumption figures unless you drive it exceptionally carefully.

The 500 offers style and substance - at a price. The Panda on which it is based is substantially cheaper

There are measurably superior hot hatchbacks to Abarth Abarth 595; some are quicker, or handle better, or have more power, or cost less. But after a few miles in the 500 Abarth, you begin to wonder if any of that matters a jot. The hot hatchback’s primary purpose – to put a smile on the face of its driver – is something the Abarth does with the verve of few cars within twice its price.

If you like the 500, it’s hard to see why you would not like the Fiat 500C even more. Unlike so many converted hatches, it has lost none of the charm or style of its parent and, far from being worse to drive, it’s actually a slight but tangibly better steer. You get all the pleasure and none of the pain.

Apart from the price. Whether the extra is a genuine reflection of what Fiat needs to charge to maintain a sensible margin or blatant profiteering we cannot say, but in some ways the Fiat’s sense of fun and style justifies the extra expense, and is another example of a retro reboot coming good.


Fiat 500 First drives