IT’S s a city car, so you need to drive it in the City”, they said. Fair enough. So why am I aboard a boat, admiring the view of Tower Bridge exchanging small-talk with a fashion blogger while sipping a virgin cocktail? Well, I’m at the launch of the new Fiat 500, of course.
By looking at these pictures, you wouldn’t think the 500 is very new at all. Fiat says 1,800 parts are different, but, in truth, this is more of a mid-life facelift than a bona fide new car. Still, that’s no bad thing. The 500’s so-cute-you-could-cuddle-it styling has always been a big part of its appeal. And, having built a range of other “500s” that look like bloated facsimiles of this orignal, Fiat could hardly give its icon a radical makeover.
Icon? Absolutely. The original 1957 Cinquecento was an alternative to the scooter for Italy’s aspirational working class. Fiat placed a freshly-restored example outside City Hall and its timeless appeal was obvious. Hard-bitten car journalists (and fresh-faced fashion bloggers) queued up to take selfies with it.
The new 500 dwarfs its lilliputian ancestor, but then it is somewhat better equipped. In place of a 13hp 479cc engine, buyers have a choice of 69hp 1.2 or 105hp 0.9 Twinair units. And while the original 500’s interior boasts a speedometer, storage tray and, well, that’s it, the new car comes with a multi-function steering wheel, electric windows and USB/Aux sockets. Higher spec models get air conditioning, rear parking sensors and a touchscreen media system.
We sail gently up the Thames from Tower Hill and dock at Putney Pier. Finally, time to actually drive the thing. We start in the cheaper 1.2 and venture gingerly out into west London gridlock. The 20mph speed limits that blanket Putney won’t be an issue today.
The 500 feels instantly at home in this urban jungle. It’s nippy and responsive, with a snappy gearshift and direct steering. Shame its new thin-rimmed wheel provides woefully little feedback. The City steering button, which makes the helm even lighter for parking, seems all but unnecessary.
Out of town, the limitations of the 1.2 engine become apparent. You’ll need to work it hard to keep pace with other traffic. Thankfully, it’s smooth and refined, which is more than we can say for the raucous (but ultimately faster) Twinair. Yes, that off-beat twin-cylinder thrum is part of the 0.9 engine’s appeal, but it quickly gets tiresome. The firm, rather jittery suspension takes its toll on longer journeys, too.
So the Fiat is still no great shakes as a driving machine. What it continues to serve up in spades, however, is character – that indefinable quality that many of its more sensible rivals lack. From its happy face (now with a bigger chrome “smile”) to its Italian gelato bar interior, the 500 simply oozes city-car chic.
However, the price of style is high. The 500 range starts at £10,890, compared with £9,495 for the equally characterful Renault Twingo. And the mid-range 1.2 Pop Star we drove costs the same as a top-spec Volkswagen Up. That looks hard to justify for a car that, minor updates aside, was first launched in 2008.
Still, classic retro designs never go out of fashion – the success of the latest Mini and VW Beetle are testament to that. And if the original 500 could stretch to 18 years and 4m sales, despite being perennially outclassed by the British Mini, who’s to bet against the current car following suit? We may just be witnessing the birth of a modern classic.
Tim Pitt works for motoringresearch.com
Fiat 500 1.2 Pop Star
Value ☆ ☆
0-62MPH: 12.9 secs
Top Speed: 99mph
CO2 G/KM: 110g/km
MPG Combined: 60.1