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Car reviews - Fiat - 500 - Lounge 1.4 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
The fact it exists, exquisite design, frugal options, affordable 1.2, four-seater practicality
Room for improvement
Hard ride on optional 16-inch alloys, big turning circle, awkward driving position, lack of proper storage areas

18 Sep 2008

FOR A car of apparently superficial appeal, it is very easy to come over all philosophical about the car-of-the-moment Fiat 500.

The Nuova Cinquecento does more than simply turn heads it gets in there like ink does to chalk, prompting thoughts, opinions and debate quite like no other baby car.

The new 500’s real beauty is its ability to make people think about, as well as beyond, its place in the world.

We found ourselves asking questions like: Why can’t more cars be this beautiful or charming? Don’t other road users deserve to look at something as interesting as the 500? Since when does ‘design’ have to be the sole provenance of the wealthy? Why do some companies churn out seemingly wilfully bland products? Why are people reacting so strongly emotionally to this Fiat?

There’s more too. Is the new 500 post-modern, retro or a reproduction? Sure, its front-wheel drive layout, larger packaging and five-star Euro NCAP-rated safety suggest the former, but as an object to behold, the Fiat is stunningly faithful to the original – certainly much more so than the BMW Mini or VW New Beetle are.

The truth is, like all great design, the 500 demands multiple viewings in order to digest all the exquisite little details, and then rewards the onlooker.

But is it just a fad that will simply end up as a postscript to the 1957 original by genius designer Dante Giacosa? Will people even care about the new 500 five years from now?

Yes, this car’s look is half-a-century old, but really mostly only to Europeans of a certain age. For many of us in the New World especially, the freshness of this ‘Bambino’ is palpable and exciting.

On one hand, it seems sad or lazy exhuming old design. Must we look to our past for future inspiration? However, on the other, if we can still buy an Eames Lounge chair or an iPod Classic, why can’t we do the same for a 1957 automobile that was recently voted ‘sexiest’ ever?

There’s irony here too, because Fiat (quite rightly) crows about the new 500’s leading low-emissions and fuel economy attributes. It’s as if a modern design won’t get people out of their polluting, space wasting SUVs, but a car from the 1950s might.

But as frugal as it is, is the New 500 really a city car? After a week in one, we do have reservations. Or perhaps we should stop thinking about this car as a Mazda2 alternative and see it simply as a boutique purchase, an extension of a fashion statement... or a sporty coupe, like a modern-day Toyota Celica. Two doors, four seats, form over function... that sort of thing.

Maybe the Fiat is all of these or perhaps it is none.

The one thing we can be sure of is that the new 500 is classless, but in a somewhat contradicting elitist way that the original, utterly affordable Nuova Cinquecento could never have dreamt of being. You will certainly see this car in London’s West End, but will the people living in the slums of Palermo ever get to own one any time soon? We doubt it.

Unfortunately, now we’ve loaded the little Fiat with the weight of even more expectation than the baggage it already possesses as a result of being a reborn Italian cultural icon.

Mind you, the BMW Mini was there before... but the small team of (mostly British Rover) engineers responsible for the wonderful 2001 version did something that Fiat has not. They made their retro marvel exceptional (again) under the skin.

Disappointingly, if you love driving, you may be saddened to learn that the new 500 is a 2004 Fiat Panda city car underneath, complete with its simple light-car staple MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear-end. No sophisticated independent Z-axle design like the BMW Mini. And Poles, rather than Italians, put it together, further eroding the brand’s La Dolce Vita and Gina Lollobrigida associations.

It’s Fiat’s money-saving philosophy, you see... but you can’t blame a company that just four years ago was on the brink of collapse.

Not that there are any visual signs of penny-pinching going on, as even a fleeting acquaintance will reveal. Indeed, you’re likely to be hooked the moment you open the new 500’s door.

Old 500 themes abound inside, with a sparse but inviting design of simple symmetry and functional ease, all set in a 3.546-metre long car.

As with the 2.97-metre ’57 model (that we only saw briefly in Australia during the 1960s, by the way), there is a single instrument binnacle jutting up ahead of the driver, containing a speedometer on the outer circumference, a tachometer directly behind that (like the original Honda Prelude’s – remember that?) and an information display in the centre.

It looks just great, works beautifully, is easy to use and has all sorts of trip-related information literally at your fingertips.

Finished in a rich vanilla hue and contrasted by body-coloured plastic trim that does a damn good job of appearing like metal, there is nothing downmarket or austere about this Italian job Fiat’s re-imagining of the original Cinquecento’s fascia is gorgeous.

Amply padded front seats which do a cushy job of providing support, a lovely little steering wheel, and sufficient ventilation (with switches and controls that are a cinch to operate in the climate-control fitted Lounge, but we prefer the simpler rotary dials of lesser models) are all mentionable attractions.

But then this all vaporised in an uno momento.

While entry and egress is fine thanks to wide-opening doors, settling in comfortably is another matter.

For your 178cm-tall tester, the driver’s seat is simply set far too high, and only the rear-end of the seat base lowers, giving drivers an uncomfortable ‘sitting in a bucket’ feeling.

At least it makes seeing out of the car even easier, but the wheel always feels too far away and the driver’s left footrest is too close.

Before you put this down to that dreadful Italian ape-like driving position cliché, we have never experienced such a thing in Italian cars before. Your writer’s background is also at least half Italian.

A reach-adjustable steering column is needed here. It does tilt, but not enough for the speedometer’s upper arc to be obscured for some people. There aren’t many places to store items like phones and MP3 players. And as for the glovebox... there is none: just a little shelf instead.

If you’re contemplating a 500 with the optional glass roof (standard Lounge issue) and you are over 185cm tall... forget it. The blind will mess your hair or scrape your scalp, and in bright sunlight a hat is necessary to cut the glare.

Of course, rear headroom is limited if you’re on the taller side anyway due to the Cinquecento’s famous form, while the front-seat occupants have to be generous with their seat travel if knees and legs are to be cleared out the back.

The rear seatbacks split/fold in one easy movement, but the space created is stepped, limiting this car’s already compromised luggage area access. At least the tall, narrow tailgate has a low loading lip, and we could transport a full-sized bicycle with the front wheel removed and the front passenger seat tilted forward.

Apart from the curiously elevated driving position, if all these problems sound familiar, well... they’re pretty common with your average two-door coupe, which then raises a further philosophical debate.

In the context of a coupe rather than a family car, do any of these things matter? Is the interior of, say, a Hyundai Tiburon or Volkswagen Beetle any more practical?

And if this is a coupe, then is the 500 a sporty drive?

Fitted with Fiat’s evergreen 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol unit, the answer depends on whether you’re expecting a city car, coupe, or sports car.

The fact is, the 500’s performance is disappointing, unless you press the Sport button located on the dashboard, which lets the engine breathe more freely and actually rev like you’d expect a small-capacity Fiat to.

Do this and a rorty, more urgent attitude takes over, giving the 500 the hard edge that all those cute and cuddly curves overshadow until now. Driven with a bit of enthusiasm, the engine feels quite responsive, with a useable dose of torque through the gears to make the little 1.4 feel sparkling, if not exactly fizzy. The official 0-100km/h-sprint claim is 10.5 seconds, although subjectively the Fiat feels faster than that.

Depress ‘Sport’ after this, and the 500 feels as flat as a three-day old glass of Orangina.

In either mode, you’ll be rowing that six-speed manual gearbox like you’re in the Oarsome Foursome, but the lever is sited usefully high up the console, nicely slick and a pleasure to use. Fiat’s engineers have also devised a suitable set of ratios for the relatively limited power and torque outputs on hand.

Happily, the car won’t default from Sport even when switched off. Which is the more desirable mode since the steering stays satisfyingly weighty, with sharp handling, great roadholding, and a balanced, neutral feel through corners, as opposed to the rather unnaturally light and lifeless device that is only helpful when turning into a really tight parking spot.

On the subject of dynamics, drive this hard through the streets as you might imagine disaffected Italian youth would do, and the 500 – in Sport mode naturally – is up for the fun, darting and squirting through alley ways and between tight city laneways. There really isn’t enough torque to corrupt the flow to the front wheels either. And the brakes do their thing brilliantly.

For the stallers of this world, there’s also a hill-hold device to stop the car rolling backwards on an incline.

But all is not quite right with this so-called city car.

Pressing Sport hardens an already too-firm ride, which – on the optional 16-inch alloy wheel-fitted 500 Lounge – borders on the hard. Small road irregularities result in a choppy ride, larger speed humps seem to reach the limits of the suspension’s bump-stops, and the whole jarring process is amplified through the cabin. Please, stick to the smaller wheels and give yourself a break.

Even worse for some people is this car’s unacceptably large turning circle. It’s just a joke that – perhaps to accommodate the fatter rubber this car wears – you cannot complete a U-turn in one go on a regularly sized road. City car? Bah!

But do you care about such matters? Obviously our European motoring journalist counterparts don’t, because enough voted for the new 500 to be European Car of the Year. Some of the less star-struck ones qualified their choice by suggesting that the less you spend (ie: 1.2-litre Pop), the better (and purer to the original Cinquecento) the Fiat becomes. Certainly we expect it to ride more comfortably.

An artist friend pointed out to us that even the cheapest 500 delivers 100 per cent of the model’s stunning visual and design impact, and questioned the need to spend upwards of $30,000 on the top-end models like our loaded Lounge – particularly when it encroaches on the dynamically superior Mini at that price point.

So the Fiat 500 is fundamentally flawed as a city car (ride, turning circle), exceedingly successful as a design statement, brilliant at potentially keeping people out of more-polluting vehicles, and superb at making you feel like you are in something special.

Certainly, no new car is as charming from $22,990 plus on-roads. The fact that it allows people the opportunity to own something designer, Italian and fun makes the new 500 an important addition to our new-car landscape.

Yes, it is the people’s supermodel, but one that can fuel the mind as well as feast your eyes.

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