Fiat's rejuvenated little 500 arguably makes most sense in the 1.2-litre 69bhp entry-level guise that most customers choose. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
Fiat's cheeky little 500 is a stylish citycar that remains as appealing as ever in this much improved guise. It's not been fundamentally changed - but then loyal buyers didn't really want it to be. These people tend to go for the base 1.2-litre version we look at here and will like the smarter look, the extra media options and the more individual feel. You can tell that Fiat knows its market.
If ever a car has built its brand, it's this one, Fiat's 500. In fact, it's done so twice. First at its original launch back in 1957. And more recently with this modern era version, first launched in 2007 and significantly improved in mid-2015 to create the refreshed version we're going to look at here. In recent times, this Fiat has faced tougher competition, not only from the MK3 version of the MINI Hatch but also from other style-orientated small cars like the Vauxhall ADAM, the Citroen-derived DS3 and new generation versions of smart's fortwo and forfour models. Hence the thorough update that's created the revised version we're going to look at here. The look hasn't changed much - why would it? That's the main reason why over 1.5 million people have bought themselves this car. Minor tweaks though, have brought the styling into line with other larger models in the wider 500 range, plus there's a little more efficiency, more scope for personalisation and wider availability of the Fiat Group's Uconnect infotainment technology. Will it all be enough? Let's find out at the wheel of the volume 1.2-litre model.
And on the move? Well the Italian brand has enhanced refinement and improved the braking performance of this revised model but in truth, the dynamic feel of this car won't be a very important consideration for most potential buyers. They'll be more interested in the super-tight 9.3m turning circle and the way you can twirl this car into the tightest parking space thanks to the super-light 'City' steering feature. These people will often be urban-based - hence the relatively high take-up for the clutchless 'Dualogic' transmission option. And over 80% of them tend to opt for the powerplant we tried, the 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol unit. There are other engine options - a 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel and the 1.4-litre T-Jet turbo petrol unit used in the hot hatch 'Abarth' models for example - but if you really don't want the rather feeble petrol 1.2, then the powerplant your dealer will probably point you towards is the clever 0.9-litre two cylinder TwinAir petrol unit, offered in either 85bhp or 105bhp guises. This delivers a lovely putter-putter thrum that seems to be exactly the kind of thing you'd have heard from the 1957 original nipping through the back streets of Naples. More importantly, in a TwinAir 500 model you'll be getting around 50% more pulling power than you would be in this 1.2-litre variant, yet this is mated to the potential for quite outstanding frugality.
Design and Build
We'd understand if you concluded that this 'new' Fiat 500 looks pretty much the same as the old one. Nevertheless, Fiat insists that no fewer than 1,800 changes have been made in improving it. None of these have altered the dinky external dimensions, so at just 3.5m long, 1.6m wide and 1.5m high, this Fiat can still fit into spaces that even a MINI would have to avoid. If you choose the 500C variant rather than the fixed-top model that we tried, you get what amounts to a full-length canvas sunroof which electrically retracts into a concertinaed bundle just above the boot. Most of the exterior styling tweaks that have been made can be found at the front. The main round headlights adopt clever polyellptical modules for improved night time vision and integrate dipped-beam headlamps and turn signals. Inside, delicious details are everywhere, the coloured fascia panels featuring iconic '500' badging and colour-matched against the bodywork. As for the key change to this improved model, well on a plush variant like our 'Lounge'-spec test car, that's very obvious, the 5-inch 'Uconnect LIVE' infotainment display screen mounted high on the dashboard, right in your line of sight. This system, optional on lower-spec models, allows Bluetooth hands-free calling, music streaming, voice recognition and an SMS reader that will read text messages to you. As for practicalities, well there's obviously not much room on the rear seat but in the boot, the 185-litre space is no smaller than an ordinary mainstream citycar like Toyota's Aygo would give you.
Market and Model
Pricing for this three-door Fiat 500 occupies quite a wide span - anything between around £11,000 to around £17,000 for mainstream versions, with a significant £2,500 model-for-model premium if you want the '500C' version with its electric fabric folding roof. Here though, we're focusing on the normal fixed-top three-door hatch. Bear in mind that at the bottom of the range, you'll be limited to the 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol engine we tried, entry-level 'Pop' models only available with this unit. Progress up to mid-range 'Pop Star' trim and the more efficient 85bhp TwinAir petrol engine becomes available - at a premium of around £1,300 over the 1.2. Whichever of these two petrol powerplants you favour, there's the £750 option of the Dualogic clutchless gearbox if you want it. Is it worth stretching up to a TwinAir-powered 500 model? Over 80% of buyers choose not to, before usually going on to spend the money they saved on optional extras or personalised trim. For the few who do want something more sophisticated, pokey and efficient under the bonnet and are prepared to pay upwards of £13,000 to get it, the TwinAir option has its appeal, though we'd be mindful here of two facts. First that in tweaked 'Eco' form, the base 1.2 can be nearly as economical. And second, that for not much more than TwinAir money, you could get yourself a 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel model that really would give you better day-to-day running cost returns.
Cost of Ownership
The more time we spent with this base 1.2-litre 500 variant, the more we understood why over 80% of buyers of this car choose this unit. For one thing, a lot of these people know that the quoted figures for the pokier, pricier TwinAir versions are very difficult to achieve in the real world. If fact, they're impossible to achieve unless you drive a 500 TwinAir model with its 'Eco' mode permanently activated. Almost nobody does this because the 'Eco' feature significantly limits the extra pulling power that would have prompted you to pay extra for the TwinAir model in the first place. On top of that, the four cylinder 1.2 has been getting progressively more class-competitive when it comes to efficiency, able to deliver 60.1mpg in this latest Euro6 guise - or 62.8mpg when mated to the Dualogic clutchless gearbox. The CO2 figures aren't bad either - 110g/km with a normal stick-shift or 105g/km in Dualogic form. Plus Fiat is also offering an 'Eco' version that can cut your CO2 to just 99g/km thanks to minor exterior and mechanical revisions.
To be honest, Fiat hasn't needed to do a whole lot to retain this 500 model's popularity. It still looks great, it's always been fun to drive and providing the pricing doesn't get too ambitious, the market remains there for it. As for this updated version, well issues like restrictions in bootspace and rear seat accommodation remain, but the things the brand could improve without a major redesign have been usefully updated. As a result, it's now a more modern-feeling product. In summary then, this car remains as likeable as ever, especially in its most affordable base 1.2-litre guise. Choosing a 'fashionable' little runabout can often be a risk. Here though, is one you can enjoy without a worry.