Fiat 500 review
The retro-inspired Fiat 500 looks great, handles well and is nimble in town - and it's pretty cheap to run as well
The Fiat 500 remains an ideal city car choice for fashion-oriented buyers. Its chic, retro styling and fun customisation choices mean it’s still as popular as ever. It’s easy to park and the Twinair engines are fun. The diesel also makes it useable on the motorway, but time has caught up with it in other areas.
The 2015 facelift fails to address issues such as the awkward driving position, imprecise controls, small boot and tiny rear seats. Cabin quality could be better in places, too, considering the price, but 1.5 million buyers can see past this.
A few years back Fiat saw (and liked) what MINI was doing, reinventing a classic small car for modern times, and before too long the all-new Fiat 500 was born. It launched in 2007 to huge fanfare, featuring cutesy retro styling, a distinctive cabin and a fun driving experience.
Since then, the MINI has gone through two whole generation changes, but the 500 hasn’t changed a great deal at all. Even this new, 2015 facelift model looks barely any different and is unchanged mechanically with the same Fiat Panda platform underneath.
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Look hard and you’ll spot tweaked front and rear light designs and a new touchscreen infotainment system, just doing enough to keep the 500 fresh. Its main rivals include the MINI, the DS 3 and the Vauxhall Adam.
The Fiat 500 still remains a hugely popular car though, so there’s no need for Fiat to change too much. One of the major reasons for its success is the extensive customisation options Fiat offers, so owners can personalise their cars with some individual styling features, full body wrappings, smaller decals and bold colour combos.
The standard three-door is at the core of the range, although there’s also a 500C convertible variant, with a big, roll-back canvas roof.
Initially there's a three-strong range available on the facelifted 500. Pop kicks off the range, but the equipment is a little basic – there's stop start, electric windows, steel wheels with wheel trims, Aux-in and USB ports, steering wheel-mounted controls and LED daytime running lights.
Mid-spec Pop Star adds air conditioning, heated door mirrors, 15-inch alloys and a 50/50 split folding rear seat. Range-topping Lounge adds a dose of extra chrome exterior trim, a panormaic fixed glass roof, rear parking sensors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, front fog lights, unique 15-inch alloys and Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth.
Engines, performance and drive
The Fiat 500 is very simple to drive, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. The engine that brings its fun personality to the fore is the two-cylinder turbo 875cc TwinAir unit, rumbling away under the bonnet with a characterful thrum when you rev it. It isn’t the most refined unit, vibrating away and sending shivers through the controls, but it is fun and character.
The steering is light across the Fiat 500 range, while the handling is nimble and fun around town. The 500's ride is softer than the MINI and Vauxhall Adam, which means there is quite a bit of bodyroll in the corners. Since the 2015 facelift it’s become a lot less bouncy and rides with fair bit more composure, but there’s limited feel from the steering still and it can’t match the ride comfort levels of a VW up!.
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Don't go for the sunroof if you are a taller driver, as it impinges on headroom and the driving position is quite high. Combined with a slightly awkward clutch and notchy, imprecise gearbox, this means that the 500 is not as easy to get along with as a MINI. You’ll find its charms wear a little thin on fast road driving, but considering its town-dwelling focus it’s adequate enough.
The 500’s engine range is about as diverse as you’ll find in a modern day city car. The range kicks off with a 68bhp 1.2-litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine, which manages 0-62mph in 12.9 seconds and a top speed of 99mph. It’s fine for town use and not too noisy, but the lack of power becomes pretty tiring at motorway speeds and when trying to overtake. It requires revving a bit to pull away smoothly due to a lack of torque, too.
The Twinair two-cylinder turbo petrol engine is available in two power outputs - 84 or 104bhp. Either gives a useful boost in torque and both are punchier than the 1.2 out of town. Refinement still isn’t great, however, as you’ve got that characterful two-stroke thrum vibrating the controls and making itself heard whether you want it to or not.
Unlike most cars of this size, a diesel option is available. The oil-burner won’t hit showrooms in the 2015 facelift until the start of 2016, but it’ll retain the same 1.3-litre Multijet unit found in the current Panda and may receive some efficiency tweaks.
With just 74bhp it’s not going to set the world alight, but it has plenty of torque providing greater flexibility and an effortless feel on the motorway. It’s easy to tell it’s a diesel under the bonnet at low speeds, but once up to speed it’s smooth and relatively quiet. It’s the Fiat 500’s best engine if you plan on doing longer distances now and then.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
The 2015 facelift didn’t bring in any new engines, but incremental efficiency updates across the 500 range helped keep it competitive.
The base 1.2-litre petrol does 58.9mpg combined and emits 110g/km of CO2, which is on a par with the 1.2-litre Hyundai i10. It’s worth noting that at the start of 2016 Fiat will bring out a special tax-busting ‘eco’ version of the 500 1.2 with emissions of just 99g/km thanks to minor exterior and mechanical revisions.
The 0.9-litre Twinair is available in two power outputs. On-paper efficiency improves over the 1.2 with combined fuel economy measured at 74.2mpg for the 85 and 67.3mpg for the 105. Its worth noting that in a number of tests with both Twinair engines we’ve found a more realistic combined figure in normal driving is around 40mpg.
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Specs for the 2015 1.3-litre Multijet diesel engine have yet to be revealed, but the outgoing car claimed 76.3mpg and CO2 emissions of 97g/km. Expect slight improvements on those figures to bring it into line with cars such as the Mini One D, but over 60mpg should be easily achievable in the real-world.
As you’d expect given its younger clientele, the 500’s insurance groups start off nice and low. The range begins at group 6 for the 1.2-litre Pop, in line with cars like the Citroen C1 and way behind the (admittedly more powerful) MINI One. The top-spec Twinair 105 Lounge comes in at a slightly steeper Group 15, but given the performance and equipment on offer, it’s reasonable.
Most Fiats tend to struggle with miserly depreciation figures, but the 500 isn’t one of them. Thanks to its huge popularity and relatively timeless style, most versions hold over 40 per cent of their value after 3 years. The MINI does even better, however.
Interior, design and technology
The Fiat 500 is a modern-day reboot of the original 500, which was launched in 1957 and captured the hearts and minds of the public.
The current version is much bigger than the original, but it's clearly a Fiat 500 with its charming curvy lines, upright stance and cute circular headlamps. The 500's dashboard is also painted the same colour as the exterior – a nice carry over from the original.
The new 500 was launched in 2007 and remained largely unchanged styling-wise until summer 2015 when Fiat tweaked the looks inside and out. At the front, the refreshed 500 gets an extra chrome strip (reminiscent of the larger 500X crossover), new larger elliptical daytime-running lights and on top-spec Lounge models a flashy studded lower grille. To the rear, there are new ring-shaped light clusters with body-coloured centres, and there are now two new exterior colours and alloy wheel designs.
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On the latest 500 you’ll be able to spec an even wider choice of personalisation features. A selection of body wrappings, known as ‘second skin’, can be added to panels, the roof or even the entire car for a fee. Everything from chequers, to butterflies and even an army camouflage can be specified. That’s on top of the ever-growing and vibrant colour choices inside and out.
On the inside there's a more retro-styled steering wheel and for the first time a glovebox lid. More importantly, though, the interior now gets a five-inch 'Uconnect' infotainment screen. As there are standard Aux-in and USB slots, the 500 now lacks a CD player but the higher-spec Lounge model gets social media connectivity through the Uconnect system.
Fiat has also widened the options list – for instance you can now spec your 500 with a seven-inch full-TFT instrument cluster for £250 and there’s also Fiat’s Mopar programme that offers more than 100 further options.
One existing problem with the 500 that hasn’t been improved particularly is materials quality. Some interior plastics are pleasing to the eye and touch, but there’s also some rather nasty door finishes and flimsier trim further down the dash. Fit-and-finish isn’t amazing in some areas, either.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Entry-level Pop models are broadly as before, receiving a simple FM Radio and USB connection with a dot-matrix screen. But step up and you’ll get Fiat’s Uconnect five-inch touchscreen mounted in the dash with Bluetooth added.
That brings smartphone integration, but you’ll need to shell out an additional £100 for a DAB radio. £350 also gets you the excellent TomTom integrated satnav with 3D mapping and traffic data.
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The combination of buttons, dials and the touch interface means the system is easy enough to use and the satnav itself is clear, but the MINI’s set-up is a fair bit slicker thanks to addition of a rotary control by the handbrake.
Another bonus of the 500’s 2015 facelift is the optional seven-inch TFT instrument screen in between the main dials. Its features add to the existing touchscreen, and the graphics are smart and clear enough to justify the price.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Buyers of the cute Fiat 500 are unlikely to have practicality at the top of their wish lists and that’s a good thing, because they won’t really find it.
If you want outright space Fiat offers the family-sized 500L and back-to-basics Panda, so the 3-door only 500 remains a traditional city car built for one or two. That’s fine for the most part, but the 500 simply can’t compete with cheaper cars like the Hyundai i10 and Renault Twingo for outright space.
The dinky exterior size may hinder outright passenger space, but it’s a bonus around town where these things spend most of their life. For starters it’s extremely easy to see out of and park, helped by a high driving position and big windows. Only a smart car nowadays can compete with the 500s ability to squeeze in even the tightest spaces.
Leg room, head room and passenger space
Step inside and, up front at least, you’ll find excellent headroom that belies the 500’s tiny size. Legroom is adequate, although the narrow pedal box is a bit of an issue for taller drivers. Things take a bit of a down turn too when you find there’s limited height adjustment on the steering wheel and no reach adjustment at all, and while the high-set seat is great for seeing out of it’s certainly not to all tastes. Also, beware of the optional sunroof which eats a big chunk of the headroom.
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The rear seats are certainly not a place you’d want to make adults sit for more than a few minutes. Legroom is pretty miserly, and that curvy roofline means heads will be squashed downwards like in a coupe. If you’ve got young children, however, it’s a perfectly useable space and rear access is easy enough.
The dashboard-mounted gearlever should free up some extra room but storage in the cabin isn’t much to write home about. Sure, there are handy compartments below the seats, but the glovebox is small. The few cupholders and the door bins Fiat provides aren’t much use either.
Don’t expect too much from the 500’s boot and you’ll find it just about big enough for the odd shopping spree. The 185-litre loadspace isn’t great when you consider the VW up! Has a full 252 litres, but it compares well with the Vauxhall Adam (170 litres) and the Toyota Aygo (168 litres).
It also extends to a full 550 litres with the seats down, which is around 180 litres smaller than the MINI. You’ll have to pay extra for split folding chairs on Pop models, but all trim levels above that get them as standard. There’s no underfloor storage to be found on the little Fiat, however, and the high load lip and narrow opening means you won’t be carrying much home from your local DIY store. But you could argue that’s not necessary in a small car like this.
Reliability and Safety
When it was first launched in 2007, the Fiat 500 scored the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests. Back then, it was one of the safest city cars on sale and it still stands comparison with the best, although today’s more stringent tests could eventually see it lose a star due to a lack of active safety equipment as standard.
Fiat fits driver, passenger, side, curtain and driver's knee airbags as standard, making a total of seven, which is decent for a city car. ABS brakes and Isofix child seat mountings feature, too. The hazard lights come on under hard braking to warn traffic behind but the trigger point is over-sensitive.
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Fiat improved by three places overall in our 2015 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, finishing in 24th spot overall. That’s far from great, recording a similar performance for reliability in 25th place out of 33, but at least the brand’s results have been heading in the right direction over recent years.
The 500 comes with a two-year manufacturer warranty and a further year’s guarantee from the dealer. That’s par for the course, although Hyundai offers five years with its i10 and Kia offers an impressive seven years on the Picanto. The 500 also gets a reasonable three-year paintwork warranty and an eight-year anti-perforation guarantee.
All 500s need maintenance every 18,000 miles or two years, although there’s the option of an annual service if the car covers less than 9,000 miles per year. We’d recommend sticking to the latter for at least an oil change. Servicing costs vary wildly according to model and engine, however.