Can Fiat recreate the magic and style of its 1957 Cinquecento other protective kit plus more with a modern day city car despite all the new safety legislation luggage and people space than to protect pedestrians? The new 500 boasts seven airbags and the Mini in a smaller package. Russell Bray is your judge
Many of us like to give our cars names. For my pal Ian, at university, his Morris Minor was always Ben, and he even painted the name in rather fancy script on the bonnet. Julie’s Ford Escort was Kermit, and I will leave you to guess the colour; and one car maker, Renault, I think for its 5 supermini, even ran an advertising campaign on the lines ofWhat’s yours called? I predict the name craze will get new life with the launch of Fiat’s super-chic new 500. Like the BMW Mini, it’s bigger than it was before, and even front-engine, front-wheel drive now, instead of rear-engined, rear-wheel drive, but the pizzazz and personality is as vibrant as ever. The engines are water-cooled too, rather than air-cooled twin-cylinders that might push you to the giddy heights of 60mph if you were going down hill and chased by an angry husband.
And if you think the Mini has nice features and good detailing of lights, switches, gauges and so on, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. As much loving attention has been lavished on the Fiat 500 as on any piece of jewellery, and everywhere you look there are things to delight. To women it will be a Gucci handbag on wheels, for men as nonchalant as a Vespa scooter for those who prefer four wheels. Fiat has got the “personalisation” thing well and truly licked. A massive list of optional extras, colours and decals means only one 500 in 549,936 should be absolutely identical During the press launch, driving the car in Turin, Italy’s motor city, was like having a role in a film. Everyone stopped, stared, waved, took pictures, or asked for a ride. If you want to attract the opposite sex in Italy, you don’t need a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, you need a Fiat 500. Even businessmen in suits on big BMW motorcycles pulled up alongside in traffic to take a measured look inside. The 500 launch was a huge affair with the River Po at night turned into a floating tableau of the car’s history as scenes was propelled along on black floating rafts. This, plus American hiphop and neo-soul singer Lauryn Hill with a 16- strong band belting it out from a floating stage made London’s Millennium celebrations seem somewhat low key. The event went out live on television and the internet, and national newspaper La Stampa gave it five pages the next day. I couldn’t help musing that if we had got behind British cars the Italian way we might still have a car industry.
The reality, though, is that to keep down costs, the 500, which mechanically is based on the Fiat Panda, is being built in Tychy, Poland, not Turin. But none of the thousands of owners of classic 500s who descended to celebrate en masse, from as far afield as Australia, cared less. The tiny 500, or Cinquecento in Italian, put Italy on wheels after the World War II, providing people were flexible enough to insert themselves in the tiny cabin. The re-born 500 arrives in the UK next January, but prices aren’t yet decided. Prices in Italy start at £7,500 for the 1.2 litre petrol, and it will cost even less in France, but Fiat UK has yet to decide which trim levels to offer. In Italy, they go under the amusing names of Naked, Pop, Sport, and Lounge.
Compared with even the last 500s of 32 years ago, the new car is built like a bank vault and Fiat claims that its quality now beats Japanese brands. Backing this up is an optional extended warranty, that will cover the car for five years or 300,000 miles.
You don’t realise how much larger the new 500 is until you park alongside an original. Yet it is 6in shorter than a Mini, despite having much better rear seat space and a bigger boot. Rear seats used only to be for children, but if those in front ease forward a little, the back is now big enough for adults for short journeys, though the sloping roof means you have to sit with your head bowed. Pushing up the rear head restraints seriously obscures rear vision. The driving position is as tight as a tank driver’s if you are tall, and you sit knees-up as the steering column doesn’t adjust, and you can only tilt the back of the seat cushion and not the leading edge under your knees. The solution was to chill out, rake the backrest as much as possible, and adopt the classic long arm, short leg Italian ape driving pose. Most of the back of the car is out of sight, though not far away, and the test cars were fitted with useful rear parking sensors.
The large gear knob is only a hand’s span away from the steering wheel, and works fluidly. As with many Fiats, the power steering has two settings. Ultra light for town driving, makes the car dart about, though it’s not as agile as a Mini, or a Ford Ka. Achieving the old 500’s proportions has meant widening the track compared with the Panda, which makes the new 500 feel very stable through bends. There’s no real feel in the steering, and I kept the electrically-assisted system permanently on the firmer setting.
The horn buttons are on the wide steering wheel spokes, so that it’s unusually tricky to drive with one hand on the horn while wolf whistling the ladies in time-honoured Italian fashion. Switches for the electric windows are on the centre console, and I kept hitting the electric mirror button on the door by mistake.
Our old friend the 16-valve 75bhp 1.3 Multijet, of which more than two million have been made, is no ball of fire, but its strong push suits the car’s character, and it’s impressively quiet and refined. A particulate trap that catches fine “dust” and does not need additives to be regenerated is standard equipment. It takes some time for the turbo to spool up to speed and start boosting power, but once on the case it feels strong and usable. The brakes felt firm and predictable, despite only drums at the rear. On a mixed route of my own invention, the fuel gauge didn’t even move and the car rode better on 15in wheels than the bouncier ride of the petrol version on larger wheels. It’s not as edgy or precise, but more flowing through corners. Like the Mini, the 500 is a great car for two people, and as with the Mini there are convertible and estate versions planned. The new Fiat 500 is cuter than the Andrex puppy, and will make even people who don’t like cars smile. There isn’t a colour it doesn’t look good in, but I particularly liked ivory and black, but would shy away from a black interior.
On sale: from January // Price from:£8,000 (estimate)
- Price: £9,500 (Estimated)
- Engine: 1,248cc four-cylinder common rail turbodiesel
- Max Power: 75bhp at 4,000rpm
- Max Torque: 107lb ft at 1,500rpm
- Max Towing: tba
- Combined Consumption:67.3mpg
- CO2 Emissions (taxband): 111g/km (B)
- 0-62mph: 12.5secs
- Max speed: 103mph
Standard equipment includes: Colour-coded bumpers, chrome-plated door handles, side window seals, inserts on front and rear bumpers and gear lever
Sports seats, rear spoiler, special interior colours and fabrics
Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution, dual stage driver’s and front passenger air bags, heightadjustable steering wheel, dual-drive electric power steering, leather-trimmed steering wheel with radio controls, electric windows, heated mirrors with electric adjustment, trip computer, fixed glass sunroof, height adjustable driver’s seat, passenger seat with storage under cushion, passenger seat backrest pocket, 50:50 split rear seats. Locking fuel cap,passenger side grab handle, lighter, space-saver spare wheel
iPod and mobile phone connections, rear parking sensors, pull-out trailer hook with cable, citrus fruit air defuser, nets for luggage compartment (prices not yet known)
Packed with ‘feel good’ factor; a lovely thing to have. Surprisingly spacious and practical. Love the huge glass sunroof. Promises fantastic economy
Driving position may not suit. Could be more fun to drive, but presumably planned Abarth performance versions will solve that. Have Fiat dealers improved?