What's Hot: Fantastic pricing, eager engines and handling, seven airbags
What's Not: Front seats are too high, limp steering
X-Factor: "Fashionable", “affordable” and “aspirational” - and throw in "cute" as well - that's gotta win friends.
Vehicle style: Light three-door hatchback
Engine/trans: 1.2 litre inline four (500 Pop), 1.4 litre inline four (500S), 875cc inline two (500 Lounge)
Price: $14,000 drive-away (500 Pop manual) to $22,700 (500C Lounge convertible)
Fuel consumption listed: 5.1 l/100km (500 Pop manual), 6.1 l/100km (500S manual), 3.9 l/100km (500 Lounge)
One of the benefits of a fiercely competitive market and high dollar (still high, but down a bit) is the downward pressure it's exerted on car prices over the past decade.
Like the Fiat 500. In a short space of time, the asking price for the tiny 500 (or Cinquecento, parlato in Italiano) has plummeted.
When Chrysler Group Australia took over local Fiat distribution 12 months ago from auto importer Ateco, the 500 cost in the mid-$20,000s. Now, the cost of entry is more than ten grand less.
Any way you care to peel it, $14,000 drive-away is not a lot of money for a car, but that’s all Fiat Australia wants for the base model Fiat 500 Pop manual.
Fashionistas on a budget will love it, but so will anyone looking for a cheap and cheerful light hatchback.
There’s some additions to the range too. The 500S has a slightly athletic aesthetic, and the 500 Lounge is blessed with Fiat’s charming TwinAir powerplant.
All have their positive attributes, but for us the most intriguing model at the 500’s local re-launch was the one that will undoubtedly be the biggest seller: the $14k Fiat 500 Pop.
The most remarkable thing about the Pop is that it doesn’t feel like a sub-$15k hatchback. Quality inside is good, and the large body-colour panel that makes up most of the dashboard looks great.
Switchgear feels solid, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel is chunky and comfortable to hold. There’s also electric windows, power-adjustable mirrors, manual air-con, Bluetooth and USB audio input.
However, Fiat hasn’t solved the 500’s problem of seat height (even this 5’8” correspondent was unusually close to the rooflining), and the chunky A-pillars still impede vision around corners.
Cost-cutting is evident in the single-piece rear backrest, which doesn’t offer the flexibility of the 50/50 split rear seat in other 500 models. The standard wheels are also 14-inch steel items with plastic hubcaps, which are far from stylish.
But what you do get is a huge array of colour choices. For the base Pop, Fiat waives the special paint surcharge and all 15 colours are available at no extra cost.
There’s also two interior colour schemes available, and the light beige scheme looks fantastic when offset against bold exterior body colours like yellow, red or light blue.
The black and white chequered upholstery looks anything but entry-spec, and overall the 500 Pop’s interior is light, airy and fun.
The 500S is a lot moodier inside thanks to a black headliner and satin-finish dash trim in shadow chrome.
Red elements in the badging, steering wheel stitching and gearknob offset all this darkness, and impart a sportier vibe to the 500S.
The seats are also better sculpted than the Pop’s and hold more securely in corners. But again, they’re mounted much too high.
If you ignore the limited-edition 500 by Gucci, the 500 Lounge is the range-topper. Starting at $20,390 it’s on the wrong side of $20k for a light car, but you do get a healthy amount of equipment.
Climate control is standard, as is a retractable glass sunroof, more upmarket interior upholstery and a self-dimming rear vision mirror. Unfortunately, cruise control isn’t available on the 500 Lounge - or any 500 variant, for that matter.
ON THE ROAD
We’ve sampled the 500 Lounge’s 0.9 litre TwinAir engine before. We like it for its tractability and perkiness, but the 1.2 litre and 1.4 litre petrol fours of the Pop and 500S were new to us.
The Pop’s 1.2 only has 51kW and 102Nm, but that’s enough poke for putting about the inner suburbs.
At 970kg when empty, the 500 doesn’t need a whole lot of engine to get itself moving and the 1.2’s output is more than adequate for A to B driving.
The clutch is light and easy to modulate, and the gearshift is slick. That’s more than we can say for most manual transmissions in the sub-$15k price bracket, which generally range from “average” to “truly awful”.
The optional MTA automated manual transmission (a $1500 cost option) offers a self-shifting alternative, but it’s not as smooth as a conventional hydraulic auto.
Unless you like abrupt gear changes, you have to lift the throttle in anticipation of gearshifts - in effect working the engine like you would in a manual car.
Yet, when some competitors don’t even have an auto option (we’re looking at you, Volkswagen Up!), the MTA is a better alternative.
The steering is electrically assisted, and lacks feel or feedback. You can make things worse by hitting the steering button on the dash. This instantly boosts power assistance to the point where you can whizz from lock-to-lock with just one finger.
Handy for tight carparks, but not terribly good out on the road.
Stepping up to the 500S, the extra power from 74kW 1.4 litre engine is definitely welcome on a country run.
The ride is a touch sharper on its 15-inch alloys, but it’s only on washboard surfaces when it could be described as uncomfortably firm.
Fiat also gave us the opportunity to to punt a 500S around a go-kart track in a timed competition. We were impressed by how neatly the 500S managed fast direction changes and the occasional curb-hop.
However the most impressive performer was the 500 Lounge, and we attribute much of that to its TwinAir engine.
It might have the smallest displacement and 11kW less peak power than the 1.4 litre motor of the 500S, but thanks to turbocharging and some fancy valvetrain technology, the tiny 875cc TwinAir pumps out 145Nm of torque at just 1900rpm - 14Nm more than the 1.4 litre, and 2350rpm earlier in the rev range.
That tractability translates into better driveability around town, and a surprising turn of speed too. Power clearly isn’t everything - it’s torque that makes the biggest difference for a road car.
First Drive Verdict
The Fiat 500 isn’t new to this market, but the way Fiat Chrysler Australia has pitched it, it most certainly is.
Where it was previously priced, it was never going to cut a swathe through the market no matter how cute its retro looks.
But that was then. Now, it’s hard to argue with the value proposition offered by a driveaway price of just $14,000 for the 500 Pop.
Not only is it affordable, it’s stylish and desirable.
Propped against its competitors from Korea (the i20/Rio), Japan (Mazda2, Yaris) and even Germany (VW Up!), the revamped Fiat 500 range makes a strong case for itself - and not just because of the killer pricing of the base model.
We’ll be spending more time behind the wheel of the Cinquecento soon, putting it through its paces in the hustle and bustle of inner-urban streets. Stay tuned for more.