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
When Fiat first released the modern 500 in 2007 it perfectly captured the essence of the original, with cute styling, tiny city car dimensions and fun to rev engines. Since then it’s been a great seller for the Italian brand, and continues to sell well today, with its fashionable image and low running costs attracting plenty of buyers.
It’s actually based on the Fiat Panda, so it’s no surprise the 500 is a good city car with historic design charm to rival the likes of MINI, as well as more premium rivals like the Citroen DS3 and Vauxhall Adam.
One of the major reasons – like all of these cars – is the extensive customisation options Fiat offers so owners can personalise their cars with some individual styling features, visual tweaks and 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.
It’s the 500 city car that spawned this family though, and with a tight 9.3-metre turning circle it’s performance in built-up areas is impressive – plus small dimensions means it’s easy to park. Choose the engine wisely and the 500 is also good on the motorway, too.
Eight years on from its launch in 2007, Fiat treated the 500 to a facelift in mid-2015. In that time, the 500 had racked up more than 1.5 million sales for the Italian company, so it hasn't wanted to rock the boat too much with a divisive facelift. So the refresh just concerns minor changes to the exterior styling and upgrades to the interior including, most importantly, a infotainment screen for the very first time. The convertible 500C also gets these tweaks – it still costs £2,650 more than the regular hatchback.
The updated 500 goes on sale in September 2015 with no price rises over the outgoing version and initially there's a three-strong range. 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 leaher-wrapped steering wheel, front fog lights, unique 15-inch alloys and Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth.
The updated 500 range goes on sale in September 2015 – until then the pre-facelift range of Pop, Cult, Colour Therapy, Lounge, the more sportily-styled 500S and the Vintage 57 and Ron Arad special editions are still on sale. In fact, the 500S and Abarth 500 range will only be facelifted and receive the new updates sometime in 2016.
There's still the same choice of engines, though they are now all Euro 6 emissions compliant. So there's a 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol, the peppy 0.9-litre Twinair, which is available with 85 or 105bhp, or a 95bhp 1.3-litre MultiJet unit.
Since its 2007 launch, time has moved on and the 500's Fiat Panda underpinnings, limited rear space, small boot, awkward driving position and flimsy plastic interior trimmings haven't aged too well – and the 2015 facelift didn't do anything to improve the car in this regard. However, while the price has risen over the years and it's now an expensive city car, there are few cars that are so chic as the 500. And more 1.5 million customers can't be wrong, either.
Our choice: 500 875cc TwinAir Lounge
Engines, performance and drive
The Fiat 500 is very simple to drive, but that doesn't mean it's not engaging. It's zippy in town and 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.
The steering is light across the Fiat 500 range, while the handling is nimble and fun.
The Fiat 500 range also includes a 1.3-litre Multijet diesel and a 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol, which gets a six-speed manual gearbox. A five-speed manual is standard on all the other engines in the Fiat 500 line-up, plus a Dualogic automatic gearbox is available on the petrol cars. This, however, is best avoided as it's jerky and not up to the standard of the manual 'box.
The 500's ride is softer than the MINI and Vauxhall Adam, although there is quite a bit of bodyroll in the corners. Don't go for the sunroof if you are a taller driver, as it impinges on headroom and the driving position is quite high.
On thw whole the 500 is comfortable, but at higher speeds on the motorway you’ll find the limits of the suspension, as with a short wheelbase and being quite tall, things can get a bit bumpy.
In its natural environment the 500 is great, though, especially with that punchy TwinAir engine that develops enough power to carve in and out of busy traffic.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Given its tiny dimensions, it should come as no surprise that the Fiat 500 is easy on the wallet in terms of fuel economy and insurance groupings.
Every model in the Fiat 500 range is cheap to run, with the most economical versions being the 85bhp 0.9cc petrol TwinAir and the 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel.
The former returns over 70mpg with 92g/km of CO2, but when combined with the Fiat's Dualogic automatic gearbox, fuel economy drops to 60.1mpg and emissions rise to 110g/km.
However, beware the optimistic claims of the TwinAir engines: though the official figures state up to 74.3mpg is possible, their dependence on a turbocharger to boost the two cylidners mean economy often languishes around the 40mpg mark unless you're very careful with your right foot.
The 1.3-litre diesel MultiJet is similar in terms of efficiency, as it manages 76.3mpg, plus 97g/km of CO2. Even the 105bhp TwinAir petrol returns reasonable figures, thanks to CO2 emissions of 99g/km and a combined cycle mpg of 67.3.
It’s only the 60.1mpg, 110g/km CO2 1.2-litre petrol that isn’t road tax free.
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, up-right 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, launched in 2007, 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 day-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, two new exterior colours and alloy wheel designs, while on the inside there's a more retro-styled steering wheel and a for the first time a glovebox lid. More importantly though the interior now gets a five-inch 'Uconnect' infotainment screen. As there is standard Auxi-in and USB slots, the 500 now deletes the CD player but the higher-spec Lounge model gets social media connectivity through the Uconnect system.
Fiat makes plenty of personalisation options available on the 500, so potential buyers can choose everything they want to make their car unique – from the paint colour to a range of stickers and decals. From September 2015 onwards, buyers of the facelifted 500 get the chance to give their 500 a 'second skin' – essentially a choice of six factory-fitted patterns that wrap the upper part of the car.
The 500 has long given owners the chance to personalise their cars – much like the MINI and the Vauxhall Adam. But for 2015's facelift, Fiat has 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.
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 the little Fiat is far from the most practical car in this class.
There's no getting away from the fact that the 500 is small but it's 185-litre boot is better than that found in more expensive rivals such the Vauxhall Adam (170 litres). The latest Mini is a better bet, having uppped its cargo capacity from 160 to 211 litres.
All models except the entry-level Pop feature a split-folding rear bench and with the seat down, loading space rises 550 litres. What's more, all models in the Fiat 500 range feature useful storage space below the seats. Storage in the cabin is mean, however, especially as the glovebox is simply an open shelf instead of a proper cupboard.
When it comes to carrying passengers, the rear seats are too small for adults to sit in comfortably – it also feels pretty cramped up front. In this respect, the Vauxhall Adam or the larger 500L family hatch is a better prospect, with the latter offering more space in the rear seats and boot.
The dashboard-mounted gearlever on the Fiat 500 and simple dash make it easy to live with but tall drivers will be dismayed to discover that there's limited height adjustment on the steering wheel and no reach adjustment at all. Add in the high-set driver's seat and the 500's disjointed driving position quickly turns from quirky to tiresome.
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.
Fiat fits driver, passenger, side, curtain and driver's knee airbags as standard, meaning a total of seven, which is good 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.
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.