Fiat 500 1.2 Sport

Does baby’s beauty go more than skin deep?

  • City button lets you increase electric steering assistance, interior design is clear and well laid out, spacious boot floor.
  • brakes are weak, it struggles on bumpy roads and is sluggish, rear headroom isn’t as good as in the MINI.

Welcome to the motoring event of 2008. As we are still in January, that may sound like we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, but it reflects the level of anticipation which surrounds the new Fiat 500.

And what’s not to love? The car is so pert and cute that it makes the MINI (which is 150mm longer and 60mm wider) look bulky.

Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Fiat 500

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The design is a triumph. No, it’s not the most macho vehicle around, but the chrome detailing (especially the moustache-style nose trim) strikes the perfect balance between retro charm and modern chic.

Of course, it’s not all about style. Safety is key, and the 500 is unique in the city car class for having seven airbags as standard and achieving a five-star rating in Euro NCAP crash tests. And unlike the MINI, practicality hasn’t suffered unduly.

Although it shares the majority of its underpinnings with the taller and far more spacious Panda, the 500 still offers a 185-litre boot. It’s unusual as there’s lots of floor space, but the sloping tailgate means it narrows higher up, giving the load bay a triangular shape. What’s more, it has a one-piece folding rear bench – a 50:50 split-fold seat is a £100 option.

Is this penny-pinching reflected elsewhere? The base Pop model is sparsely kitted out, but this Sport adds air-con and other desirable features, such as a leather steering wheel and front foglights. It also gets alloys, multifunction steering and Bluetooth – all of which would hike the MINI’s price by £1,185.

So kit is generous – but you may be too excited about the interior design to worry about what’s included. The 500 is a joy to spend time in. There’s a lustrous finish to the body-coloured dash, which blends with the black top to give a very solid appearance.

The hazard light button looks like a boiled sweet, the overlaid speedo and rev counter dials are an innovative way of saving space and the high-sited gearlever is great to use – only the shift from fourth to fifth isn’t quite as precise and slick. The cabin has real charm and character, so we’re prepared to forgive a few weaknesses.

For starters, there’s no reach adjustment on the steering wheel. And while the seat is comfortable, it’s set too high for taller drivers, and material quality is not on a par with the Smart’s, let alone the MINI’s. In fact, despite how it looks, there’s a sense that the cockpit is simply not as well engineered.

The engine backs up this theory. Although the 1.2-litre is sweeter than the 1.4 we tried last summer (Issue 974), it’s not nearly as smooth, refined or flexible as the MINI’s 1.4. The Fiat has a narrow power band – there’s not much torque below 3,000rpm and once the needle passes 5,000rpm it’s noisy. The 500 is a quarter-of-a-tonne lighter than the MINI, yet 0-60mph took more than four seconds longer, at 15.3-seconds.

In town, the lack of pace isn’t so much of an issue, and the Fiat is a good companion. It has a tight turning circle, steering that can be lightened by pressing the city button, good all-round visibility, compact dimensions and feels generally quite enthusiastic.

But it isn’t so eager at higher speeds. On motorways, it gets pummelled and the ride – which is patchy enough on urban roads – becomes crashy and unsettled, making the car tiring to drive.

In short, the suspension is choppy, and this has an adverse effect on the handling as the 500 rarely feels that composed, while electric assistance means the steering offers minimal feedback.

To a certain extent, the Fiat’s modest driver appeal isn’t an issue as it fails to detract from the feelgood factor. The challenge is keeping the love alive three years down the line – so the firm needs to overhaul its dealer network.

This is a top priority for new UK boss Andrew Humberstone, who understands the 500 will attract a different customer base to other Fiats. Once that’s up to standard, there’s little that can hold it back

Details

Price: £9,300Model tested: Fiat 500 1.2 SportChart position: 2WHY: We tried a diesel in Issue 996 and tested an LHD 1.4 in Issue 974. Now, can the 1.2 prove itself?

Economy

Thanks to its 1.2-litre engine’s low output, the 500 returned a decent 44.4mpg. That means a range of 342 miles. But we had been expecting better. According to the manufacturer’s figures, we should be seeing more than 55mpg.

Residuals

OUR experts predict that the retro-styled Fiat won’t hold its value as well as the MINI or Smart. But a residual figure of 46.9 per cent is still very good indeed – particularly given Fiat’s traditionally poor reputation on the second-hand market.

Servicing

we called more than 10 dealers and found huge disparities in the cost of servicing, as well as a general sense of confusion. Some said prices will be similar to the Panda’s, while others quoted up to an amazing £1,300 for three checks.

Tax

THE 500 emits 119g/km of CO2 – that’s 7g/km more than the ForTwo, which has a smaller engine. Yet it sits in the same 15 per cent tax bracket. The Fiat is an affordable company car, with lower-rate users paying £307 annually.

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