2013 FIAT 500 REVIEW
Vehicle Style: Light three-door hatch
Price: $14,000 (driveaway)
Engine/trans: 51kW/102Nm 4cyl petrol | 5spd manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 5.1 l/100km | tested: 5.7 l/100km
Fiat has added "affordability" to the feature list of its cute-as-a-button 500 hatch in the booming light car segment.
Visual appeal for the 500 was already in the bag, but now that it's back under factory control in Australia, the 500 range has also become a more realistic prospect in the pocket.
Newly sharpened drive-away pricing is a huge drawcard, and few of the 500's features have been lost in the process.
Good news all-round, then? Well, there are some hits and misses - read on to find out more.
Quality: There's a lot to like about the 500's cabin, and the key - apart from retro-chic style - is smart material choices. The dash and chrome door handles look and feel simply top-notch.
In reality there are a lot of hard plastics in use, but those are cleverly disguised and well finished. There are a couple of rough edges on show around the open glovebox though, and the door cards also display a fair bit of flex.
Comfort: Without a lot of interior width, elbow room comes at a premium, but with a high roof and a lofty seating position there’s a nice feeling of space.
The seats are a little flat, but it isn’t hard to find a suitable driving position. The lack of a reach-adjustable steering wheel (tilt only) forces a slightly upright position and a tight pedal box can be a bit of a hindrance for those sporting size ten boots.
Knee and elbow space is at a premium in the rear - as you'd expect - but the tall ceiling helps. Getting past the front seats is a bit of a trick however.
Equipment: A few items have gone missing in the hunt for a lower price point, but there's still a strong showing.
As an entry model, the 500 Pop gets a leather-wrapped multi function steering wheel, 14-inch steel wheels with full wheel covers, power windows, remote central locking, height adjustable driver’s seat, manual air conditioning, cloth trim, electric mirrors, daytime running lights and height adjustable headlights.
Infotainment is via six-speaker CD/AM/FM/MP3 player with Bluetooth connectivity. Cruise control doesn’t make the options list, but you can have any of the 500’s 15 available colours, plus a choice of black and grey interior, or the bold beige which can be used to great effect with the body-coloured dash panel.
Storage: Behind the rear seat there’s 185 litres of boot space. Its deep, but doesn’t extend very far forward.
The one-piece rear backrest does fold, but not flat, revealing 550 litres of space. In the cabin the open glovebox will slot in a few smaller items, there’s also tight cup holders and lengthy door pockets.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: You may not think it at first glance, but the Pop is a hoot to drive.
And while a 1.2 litre four-cylinder engine producing just 51kW of power at 5500rpm and peak torque of 102Nm at 3000rpm doesn’t sound zesty... it is.
The joy behind the wheel comes from an effervescent engine that absolutely thrives on a good workout. Make no mistake: you have to row the gear lever pretty hard around town, but the more revs you pile on, the better.
The biggest surprise came on the highway, where the engine - close to its peak torque point - required less downshifting to maintain momentum than expected.
Refinement: From a smooth idle, all the way to the 5500rpm power-peak, the little four-cylinder remains civil and smooth.
Noise suppression is noteable too: there’s a bit of engine buzz at times, but road and wind noise are quite good amongst its class.
There's also none of the numb clutch and vague gearshift that usually affects light cars, with a very positive but still light clutch pedal. The gearshift is fluent too, although the uneven spacing of the gate between first, third and fifth gear is a little odd.
Ride and Handling: The body is quite tall, and the track relatively narrow, so the 500 with roll through the bends, and pushes into early, but predictable understeer.
The steering is a little toothless too, but it is light and comfy and the city mode is a boon for quick and easy parking. There’s a gritty feel when twirling the wheels at low speeds, but it fades out as speed picks up.
A simple torsion beam rear axle and MacPherson strut front end provides handling that can easily be described as fun while still riding smoothly over choppy tarmac, cobblestones and corrugations.
Braking: Discs up front and drums in the rear are all that’s required to pull up the 500 Pop. In such a light package that’s not any real problem. The pedal is on the soft side, but a sharp jab of the middle pedal will wash off speed to great effect.
ANCAP rating: 5/5 Stars - this model scored 34.91 out of 37 points in tests conducted by Euro NCAP.
Safety features: Even the entry level Pop comes with an impressive seven-airbag count (driver’s knee, dual front, dual side and dual full-length curtain) ABS brakes with brake assist, stability control, adjustable head restraints for all four seats and load-limiting pretensions for the front seatbelts.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years, 150,000km
Service costs: Service intervals are set at 15,000km or 12 months, whichever occurs first. Service costs may vary, so consult your dealer.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Volkswagen Up! ($13,990) - The Up is a well-built unit, although starting as a three-door model and making a feature of its body coloured trim parts is a clever way of hiding some of the cost-cutting.
On the road, a smidge more power but a touch less torque shows in slower acceleration, but better economy. Overall a very well rounded package, but needs the $500 Maps & More package to be truly competitive. (see up! reviews)
Holden Barina Spark CD ($12,490) - five doors and five seats aid versatility. The gearbox is mushy and the engine feels flat and really notices the weight of a couple of extra passengers.
The styling tries to be cool, and a range of bright colours help. Seat trim in fabric and vinyl feels flimsy, and the interior plastics leave much to be desired. (see Barina Spark reviews)
Nissan Micra ST ($13,490) - Like the Spark there’s five doors and five seats, there’s also more interior space and like the 500, the Micra tends to be more fun to drive than the rest of the class.
The interior doesn’t look as exciting, but the hard plastics in use are well finished and the boot (like the Up!) is substantially larger. (see Micra reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
In years past, with a more premium price point, the 500 had a bit of a battle on its hands. It’s always been a reasonable little package, but the sticker price wasn’t particularly welcoming.
That’s all changed now. The Pop might go without a feature here and there - but it isn’t a bare-bones price leader.
There’s real value on offer, and with cheeky eye-catching styling the 500 turns heads. You won’t get this kind of attention in anything else for the money.
Throw in surprisingly competent on-road behaviour and a playful chassis that loves a run around town and FIAT’s fantastic 500 becomes a must-drive for light car shoppers.