Fiat's rejuvenated little 500 arguably makes most sense in the 1.2-litre 69bhp entry-level guise that most customers choose. Jonathan Crouch checks out the more frugal 'ECO' version.
Ten Second Review
Most customers choose Fiat's cheeky little 500 in 69bhp 1.2-litre four cylinder petrol form, but the disadvantage of having this engine has always been its relative inefficiency for a citycar. The Italian brand has now moved to put that right by introducing an 'ECO' version capable of over 65mpg and sub-100g/km CO2 emissions.
You can't get away from the fact that a Fiat 500 is one of the cutest citycars out there. But you also can't get away from the fact that, in the 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol guise that most customers choose, it's one of the last efficient models of this type you can buy. A 60.1mpg combined cycle figure and 111g/km of CO2 returns just don't cut it in this segment any more. Criticise the car for this and Fiat would quickly retort that it offers a much more frugal two cylinder 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol engine further up the range for far superior frugality. This though, costs a lot more, plus its quoted returns are notoriously difficult to achieve in the real world. Hence the importance of this 1.2 ECO model. It takes the old four cylinder 69bhp engine - and tries to give it a new lease of life - from an efficiency point of view anyway. Let's check it out.
And on the move? Well the Italian brand has enhanced refinement and improved the braking performance of this recently revised 500 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 this 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol unit. It offers distinctly leisurely performance - 62mph from rest takes 12.9s en route to 99mph and you get around half the pulling power through the gears than you'd get in the pricier turbocharged TwinAir variant. Still, most 500 model buyers don't care about performance very much and for them, this variant will suit just fine, especially in this more frugal 'ECO' guise.
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
This 'ECO' model isn't available in entry-level 'Pop' form for 500 model buyers, but you do get it in volume 'Pop Star' spec. Here, there's a premium of around £300 over the standard 1.2-litre model, which means that pricing starts at just under £12,000 - or around £14,500 for the Convertible 500C version. 'Pop Star' trim gives you 15-inch alloy wheels, powered and heated body-coloured door mirrors and the 50/50 split-folding rear bench that, rather meanly, 'Pop' trim makes you do without. On to safety. You don't get any of the latest electronic camera-based features that are now creeping onto rival models but all the basics are very much in evidence. So you get twin front, side and curtain airbags, plus a driver's knee 'bag. There's ESC stability control, plus anti-lock brakes with 'HBA' 'Hydraulic Brake Assistance' to help in panic stops that'll be advertised to following motorists by automatically-activating hazard warning lights. On top of that, you get Fiat's ASR and MSR traction control systems, Tyre pressure monitoring and a Hill Holder clutch to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions. It all justifies this car's 5-star Euro NCAP safety test rating.
Cost of Ownership
The more time you spend with this affordable 1.2-litre 500 variant, the more you'll understand 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. This 'Eco' version can cut your CO2 to just 99g/km thanks to minor exterior and mechanical revisions. And deliver 65.7mpg on the combined cycle.
This 'ECO' version of the 1.2-litre petrol model will be a significant variant in the 500 range. In fact, we'd suggest that for many buyers of this car, it will be the one to have. You get class-competitive citycar cleanliness and frugality at a much more affordable price than you'd pay for a 500 with the more sophisticated TwinAir engine. In other words, the sums add up. Choosing a 'fashionable' little runabout can often be a risk. Here though, is one you can enjoy without a worry.