AMONGST AUSTRALIA'S SOMEWHAT LIMITED MICRO-CAR PACK, THE FIAT 500 STANDS APART.
It’s the only three-door hatch in the micro class for starters, but it’s also the only ‘upmarket’ offering in a class packed with price-focussed contenders.
Mixing sophisticated style and some high-end features into a compact city car seems to have done the fashion-forward 500 no harm, and, thanks to an update at the start of this year, the tiny 500 continues to charm.
Vehicle Style: Micro hatch
Price: $22,500 (plus on-roads) $25,500 (as tested, plus orc)
Engine/trans: 74kW/131Nm 1.4 4cyl petrol | 5sp automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 5.8 l/100km | Tested: 8.0 l/100km
Right now the Fiat 500 range comprises two models (before getting into the sporty Abarth-branded models), the Pop or the more extensively equipped Lounge tested here. As well as a three-door hatch, you can have either with a folding fabric roof, but we’ve stuck with the hatch on this occasion.
While Pop pricing starts at $18,000 (or $19,000 driveaway), a Lounge costs $21,000 before on road costs, adding the five-speed automated transmission of our tester adds another $1500.
Then there’s options: metallic paint is $500, and the Perfezionare Pack which adds partial leather trim, high intensity headlights with washers, and 16-inch alloy wheels is $2500.
The car you see here has them all, and tips the scales at a whopping $25,500 (plus), or enough to buy a well-specced Mazda3, Corolla, or i30. And, while none of those cars has the 500’s irrepressible charm, they’re larger, and much, much better value for money.
But does it all come down to value, or does the 500 have another ace up its couture-clad sleeve?
- Standard equipment: manual air-conditioning, leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel, glass roof, TFT instrument cluster, height adjustable driver’s seat, floor mats, rear park sensors, premium cloth trim, 15-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: six-speaker Uconnect 5.0-inch touchscreen, AM/FM/DAB radio, USB and Aux inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, satellite navigation
- Options fitted: electric sunroof $1500, Perfezionare Pack (HID headlights, headlight washers, partial leather trim, 16-inch alloy wheels) $2500
- Cargo volume: 185 litres minimum expandable via 50:50 folding rear seat
Nothing else in the automotive realm is quite like the 500 on the inside (with the exception of Fiat’s similarly styled 500X SUV).
There’s so much 1950s charm and nostalgia in the 500 that you can never be quite sure if you should steer it, or hug it.
More than just the retro-glossy dash and diner-inspired sets though, the 500 Lounge actually packs in a fair dollop of equipment.
A glass roof is standard on the Lounge hatch, although it is possible to upgrade an opening roof for an extra $1500. There’s also a 7.0-inch TFT instrument cluster and 5.0-inch Uconnect touchscreen including satellite navigation.
The interior has a fairly simple layout, and is easy enough to use, with manual air-conditioning and an easy-to-operate touchscreen infotainment system that also includes DAB+ digital radio.
The multi-function TFT screen in front of the driver lays out a large digital speedo, and groups secondary information around the outer rim with trip computer info displayed at the bottom. It’s clear and legible and a nice touch in its segment.
The 500 is only small though, so interior accommodation is narrow, and the front seats have been scaled down in size to suit.
Large-framed drivers may find the 500 a touch squeezy, while the lack of reach adjustable steering compromises the seating somewhat.
The front seats sit up high off the floor, something you may not expect in such a small car, but the end result is terrific forward visibility and less intimidation from larger SUVs, the downside is cramped headroom.
The rear seats are set up for two passengers, and it is pretty snug in there unless the front seat riders are happy to sacrifice some of their own legroom. Headroom and visibility out of the rear is fairly generous though.
The interior doesn’t feature much in the way of versatile storage, but there are floor-mounted cup holders, small door pockets and a compact glovebox.
At the rear, the 500 hatch features a compact 185 litre boot, with 50:50 split fold rear seats to free up more room if required.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 74kW/131Nm 1.4 litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol
- Transmission: Five-speed automated single clutch, front wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
- Brakes: Front disc, rear drum
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering, turning circle: 10.6m
The 1.4 litre engine under the bonnet of the 500 spins out 74kW of power and 131Nm of tourque, making it one of the stronger engines in its class.
The 500 also has a fairly low weight, tipping the scales at less than one tonne, meaning the little engine isn’t forced to work too hard to move the 500 about.
But, and this is a very big ‘but’, there’s a trick to getting the best out of the 500, and it all comes down to the Sport button on the dashboard.
If you leave the 500 in its normal driving mode it feels sluggish, lethargic, and unresponsive. Squeeze the accelerator and you'll feel almost ignored, and the transmission takes an age to shift between gears.
Select Sport mode though, and the 500 gathers its wits, with a throttle that’s more responsive, steering with a little more weight, and a transmission that shifts gears without lengthy interruptions to power delivery.
And that last point - the transmission - is where the biggest problem lies. Unlike a conventional automatic, or a CVT auto, the 500 offers an automated manual gearbox - in other words the car regulates the clutch and gearshifts for you.
The goal may have been a lighter, less complex transmission, but it simply works poorly. This is something, really, that will impress no-one and Fiat needs to dump it right now.
it can’t change gears as quickly or smoothly as a human driver might, and for three point turns, parking, or low-speed driving, it can be jerky and annoying.
If you can live with the six-speed manual, it’s far the better choice.
Aside from that though, the little 500 is a bit of a giggle to drive. Its short wheelbase and compact dimensions mean it’s happy zooming around bends.
The ride isn’t unpleasant around town, although it can feel a little jiggly on the highway. For ironing out speed humps and cobblestones though, the 500 knows its stuff.
It’s light and easy to park, and visibility is good thanks to the tall and airy cabin.
Though the 500 isn’t what you’d call a hot hatch, there’s enough verve underfoot for zipping about town. The more powerful engine in the Lounge gives it a handy turn of speed when needed.
It can be a touch noisy at high revs, and high speed driving reveals plenty of tyre roar and engine drone (it's better and more suited, we think, as a city dweller).
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - the Fiat 500 scored 34.91 out of 37 possible points when tested in 2008.
Safety features: Seven airbags (dual front, side, window, and driver’s knee), ABS brakes with electronic brake distribution, stability control with anti-slip regulation, hill holder and hydraulic brake assist for emergency stops.
Each seat comes with an adjustable head restraint, while the front seatbelts feature load-limiting pretensioners.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
You won’t find the 500’s retro panache in any other micro car at the money, but you will find the practicality of five doors in the Fiat’s rivals, which also undercut the little three-door on price.
The Holden Spark offers decent handling and plenty of in-car tech, while the new Kia Picanto tries to be as simple as possible with one spec level and one drivetrain only, but still offers some visual flair.
For the money though, it might be worth considering moving up to a slightly larger, but still very well specced Mazda2 Genki, or Renault Clio - both are handsome and lovely to drive, but also offer better value for money, more size, and the convenience of five doors.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Start throwing options at it, like in the highly specified car we’ve tested here, and it can become a little pointless trying to justify the value for money in the Fiat 500 Lounge.
But, you don’t buy a car like this if you're shopping for the lowest price. This car is the ‘little black dress’ of the micro-car segment - just a little bit practical, but more than anything stylish and timeless; a statement.
It's the smart retro style of the 500 range that is the lure - not the performance, nor practicality.
The Fiat 500 is a car you buy with your heart. There is an appealing car in here, but the best advice we can give is to forget the automatic version and stick with the six-speed manual.
At least then your rational side will have a reason to thank you.