A Fiat 500 was my first ever press car, lent to me by a well-respected PR chap who was willing to take a bet on a recently retired prison governor who was trying to make his way in the world as a motoring journalist.
I have never forgotten his kindness, or his willingness to take a risk on someone who, frankly, didn’t have a clue about the business of reviewing cars.
Nor have I forgotten the thrill of having a brand new car delivered to my door with a tank full of fuel and a week to drive it.
I didn’t earn very much at all for that particular review, but it has left me with a soft spot for the Fiat 500.
The car that Fiat lent me back then was a 500 TwinAir, named for the infamous two-cylinder engine that provides terrific propulsion and bags of fun but is woefully thirsty, something that came as a bit of a shock to customers who had bought one on the promise of 70mpg only to find that even with a light touch on the throttle they struggled to reach 50mpg. (For this you can blame an EU testing cycle that is in no way representative of everyday driving, rather than Fiat; there was no VW-style cheating going on, just old-fashioned engineering optimization.)
Revisiting an old favourite
Five years on, and I thought it might be nice to revisit the 500, only this time with a more conventional four-cylinder engine of 1.2-litres and 69bhp.
A mild facelift in 2015 freshened its face a little, but I bet most wouldn’t be able to spot a new car unless it was side-by-side with an older model.
So, other than a few very minor tweaks, the 500 is much as I remembered it: stylish and intricately designed, wringing every last retro touch from its rich heritage.
The new 500 might be considerably bigger than the original – and the 500L and 500X are bigger still - but it apes its ancestor is a way that the MINI struggles with; if the MINI is a pastiche, then the 500 is the original car made fit for modern roads and modern drivers.
My 500 Lounge was equipped with 15-inch alloy wheels, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, rear parking sensors, electric windows, remote central locking, some extra chrome trim, defrosting door mirrors, and air-conditioning as standard.
The press office has then added a TomTom sat-nav, an upgraded 7-inch touchscreen (the standard is 5-inch), and automatic air-conditioning. The upgraded air-conditioning might tempt me but I wouldn’t bother with the sat-nav, which was fiddly to use and not a patch on my iPhone’s CoPilot app that cost me £25 against the £350 Fiat charge for the TomTom.
It was also fitted with a space saver spare wheel rather than one of those annoying little cans of tyre repair foam.
Spare tyre or tyre foam?
Good headroom but a crowded footwell
Headroom in the front is good, even for hefty six-footers. However, the footwell is very crowded and while there is a footrest for your clutch foot, it’s set back and high, making for an awkward shuffle to reach it. I ended up slipping my left foot under the clutch pedal, which wasn’t ideal and was the car’s one serious ergonomic flaw.
The upright driving position is OK, but does rather feel like you’re sitting at the kitchen table.
Space is at a premium in the back too and it’s really only suitable for children or for carrying adults on short journeys.
An extroverted exterior
The design of the exterior is just as fetching as the interior, assuming you’re a bit of an extrovert, that it. While some cars in this class blend into the background with an enviable sense of anonymity, the 500 is bold and confident and hard to miss. You’ll know where you sit on the spectrum, but while I’m normally more of a stealth driver I like the 500 and the sense of brio it endows.
High scoring in terms of fun
Dynamically, the 500 is starting to show its age. It’s not terrible by any means but newer cars like the Vauxhall Viva and Suzuki Celerio are better, sharper and more cohesive.
However, where the 500 scores is in the fun factor; I drove it from North Wales to Silverstone and opted for the scenic route along the Welsh Marches rather than the more direct motorway route, as it was such a beautiful evening and I wasn’t in a hurry. I ambled along at the legal limit and discovered that an initially numb chassis is actually good fun to punt along country lanes.
Working in the city
Its cuteness works for you in the city too; no one looks at a 500 and feels even a little bit threatened, so gaps open up in traffic and drivers fall over themselves to let you out of side roads.
These things make a huge difference and I’m sure that you’d feel the benefit of driving something that other people admire rather than envy every single day.
The engine feels nippy at city speeds too, and is much more at home being bundled along at 30mph than 70.
The steering is light and direct and there is a ‘city’ button that lightens it up even more for those who like to be able to twirl their steering wheel with a single digit.
The four-cylinder engine might be the most popular choice with customers but it is conspicuous by being almost entirely featureless, which I thought was a shame given the appeal of the rest of the car.
The TwinAir engine might not be the last word in economy, but it’s a joyous bundle of fizz and fun with a character that is absolutely in keeping with the rest of the car’s nature. As you can expect around 50mpg from either engine, you might as well go with the TwinAir and have some fun.
It’ll cost you about £1,300 more, but you gain a tiny bit more power and a lot more enjoyment and if money is tight, then I’d suggest dropping a trim level to get the better engine. My 1.2-litre top-of-the-range Lounge costs £12,640, while the Pop Star trim level (I know…) TwinAir 85bhp will set you back £13,065, but I bet some showroom haggling would narrow the gap a bit.
A mixed bag
I was left feeling that the Fiat 500 is a bit of a mixed bag; objectively, it’s getting old and is outclassed in a number of areas by some of its rivals yet I enjoyed driving it immensely and that’s the point of cars like this, surely?
If you fancy one you should take the plunge, but if fashion isn’t your thing you can do better for less.
Power – 69bhp
Torque – 75lb ft
0-62mph – 12.9 seconds
Top speed – 99mph
Kerb weight – 865kgs
Official average fuel consumption – 60.1mpg
Honest John real world fuel consumption – 48.2mpg
CO2 emissions – 110g/km
VED class – Band B
Towing capacity (braked) – 800kgs
Warranty – 3 yrs/60,000 miles
Price – £12,640
Price as tested - £14,080
Best-in-class – The Suzuki Celerio isn’t as cool as the Fiat, but it’s better to drive and much, much cheaper.
The best of the rest – The DS3 is very modern and very appealing, so if design rather than retro is your thing, it’s definitely worth a closer look. It can get very expensive very quickly though.
Left-field alternative – The Renault Clio doesn’t try and make any kind of design statement, it just gets on with the job of being wonderful to drive.
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