Style conscious city car buyers are spoilt for choice these days, but the cars that started the craze are still the best on sale. The MINI and Fiat 500 rely on retro charm, compact dimensions and low running costs in the battle for showroom success, while a dazzling array of options allow you to personalise your car right down to the tiniest detail.
Style-wise the MINI and Fiat 500 look to the past for inspiration and the MINI’s chrome grille, large round headlamps and flat roof give it a unique appearance. It looks best when fitted with large alloys but beware – fitting a set of 17 or 18-inch wheels ruins the ride comfort. In contrast, the Fiat is cuter than the squat MINI, but also borrows its smooth nose and sloping rear end from an ancient ancestor.
The retro approach continues inside where the MINI’s toggle switches, central speedo and stylised cabin provide a unique environment. You sit higher in the 500 but there are also plenty of old-school cues, including a large pool ball gear lever and semi-circular central speedo.
Compact exterior dimensions and style-led designs aren’t a great recipe for interior space and rear passengers pay the price in both cars – but in different ways. In the MINI there is plenty of headroom, but knee room is at a premium. The seating position in the back of Fiat ensures marginally more legroom but the sloping rear hatch eats into headspace, so tall passengers will find their heads pressed against the inside of the car. Bootspace is in short supply whichever model you choose, but the Fiat has the edge with 185-litres of luggage space compared to 160-litres in the MINI.
If you want a car that’s fun to drive and sporty, the MINI is the clear favourite. Its livewire handling, agile responses and progressive controls make it a hoot to drive on the right road, but the ride is generally firm unless you choose a simple One model. In contrast the Fiat relies more heavily on its charm to get by, as the driving experience is closer to the city car norm with more body roll in corners and less precise controls than you get in the MINI.
The 900cc Fiat two-cylinder TwinAir petrol engine is charismatic but lacks performance and, while it’s clean with CO2 emissions of 92g/km, you’ll struggle to get anywhere near the claimed fuel economy figure of 70.6mpg in normal driving. Pick of the range is the 95bhp MultiJet diesel, which is capable of 0-62mph in 10.7 seconds and provides fuel consumption of 76.3mpg.
In the MINI, Cooper trim is popular but pricey and to compete with a Lounge-spec Fiat 500 on price you’ll need to go for the lowly MINI One D. It is efficient enough (74.3mpg) but still more costly than the Fiat and kit levels are sparse: although a DAB radio is fitted as standard. Powerful MINI Cooper S and Cooper SD models provide genuine hot hatch performance and looks to match - you’ll need an Abarth 500 to get a similar package in the Fiat - and the nimble chassis easily copes with the extra power. That’s a good job as the top-of-the-range JCW can sprint from 0-62mph in a quick fire 6.5 seconds.
Comparable Euro NCAP safety rating and satisfaction scores in our Driver Power survey make these two hard to separate and the prices of both cars will rise quickly if you get carried away with the optional extras - but which one gets our vote? If driving thrills are high on the agenda, the MINI is the clear winner but if you want something more relaxed and comfortable and cost effective, the charming Fiat deserves equal billing at the very least.
|MINI One D||Fiat 500 1.3 Mulitjet Lounge|
|Engine||1.6-litre 4cyl diesel||1.3-litre|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual||five-speed manual|
|Equipment||Air conditioning, DAB radio, heated door mirrors, alarm, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)||Seven airbags, alloy wheels, Bluetooth, USB input, air conditioning, leather steering wheel, ESP|
|Boot capacity||160 litres||185|
|Warranty||3yrs/unlimited mileage||3yrs/100,000 miles|
|Driver power rating||80th||81st|
|Euro NCAP||Score: 5/3/2||Score: 5/3/2|