Fiat 500 - Driven

With Chrysler Group Australia taking over distribution of Fiat in Australia in 2013, they opened things up to sell far greater numbers of cars than previous importer Ateco had before. Fiat effectively owns Chrysler which gives them a good basis in Australia to move things up a notch, or two.

The 500 has been on sale for a while in Australia, initially selling relatively expensively as a luxury toy. That changed a couple of years ago with aggressive Driveaway pricing and volume sales hit the target. A new price-leader 500 Pop made a very compelling argument for itself against a raft of not so exciting Suzukis, Kias and their like. It was the same price as Volkswagen’s excellent and now deleted Up. At this price, people began buying 500s in droves. However, much to the disappointment of Fiat dealers, the entry level car was a short term model... And with the slightly revised Series 3 model, the starting price crept up by about $3000. Then the Series 4 saw a model adjustment and more price hikes.

What do you get for today's lowest price 500 of $18,000? Well, there’s the obvious… great styling and neat packaging. Decent handling, well sorted road manners and cute looks. Inside, there’s a pretty full complement of equipment. Power steering, power windows, air conditioning, radio/CD/MP3 with 6 speakers, Bluetooth, leather steering wheel with button controls, seven airbags... Nothing missing there. Did I mention the styling?

There’s electronic stability control, remote locking, and even a little pack in the boot with a container of oil, a folding funnel and hand wipes. Sure, it just has plastic hubcaps a and misses out on a split rear seatback, but it certainly doesn’t scream poverty pack.

Some of the plastics inside are not so luxuriously finished, there are shortages of trim in the boot and the miniscule back shelf is reminiscent of the lid of an egg carton, but the 500 is a cheap car and like every other cheap car on the market, some of this kind of finish is to be expected.

The 500 Pop I drove had a fabulous looking interior. The dashboard in all 500s is the same colour as the car’s exterior, which adds some light and brightness in most cases. This car also had a red and cream colour scheme – red on the seats and door trims, cream seat tops, headrests, steering wheel, centre console sections and instrument cowl. Looked like a million dollars inside, not $18,000…

Fiat has expanded the colour range to 13 options (almost all with a price premium), including new hues of Blue Jelly Bean, Mint Milkshake and Vanilla Ice Cream. There are sixteen interior colour schemes to select from.

How does it drive? Not bad. The 1.2-litre powerplant doesn’t offer a lot of performance, but it’s a 4-cylinder unit where much of the opposition offers only a triple - which for many buyers, will be a big plus.

If you can stir the gearstick enough and keep your right foot into it, the Cinquecento handles almost sportingly, eager to corner enthusiastically and the brakes are more than adequate.

The 500’s enemy is the speed bump. Sharp speed bumps see the front suspension crash hard, wide speed humps make the 500 pitch and bob. It’s inevitable with short wheelbase cars, but the 500 really doesn’t tackle them well except at really low speeds. Conversely the suspension is quite supple when it comes to rough road surfaces, soaking up little bumps and lumps with aplomb.

The second version I drove was a 500C (C for Convertible), in top Lounge spec with the little Twinair 2-cylinder engine. Now there’s an interesting combination. Fiat no longer offers the 2-cylinder model locally, but the open-top is still available.

I’ll start with the body. The electrically operated soft-top opens to two positions: all the way open above the seats, or more open, with the (glass) rear window all folded down just enough to completely obliterate rearward vision. Okay, taller drivers can see a bit over the folded roof… It does have a much more open feel than any sunroof and harks back to the original 1960s Fiat 500’s opening roof. It shuts very nicely and is a tight, quiet roof when closed. I liked it.

The Lounge specification adds more luxury and better trim levels, so the car has alloy wheels, extra chrome trim, different upholstery, automatic air conditioning and a few other little goodies. If you don’t go for the opening top, the Lounge comes with a big glass roof (with internal sunblind).

The 51kW 1.2-litre engine offers 5.1 litres/100km. At an extra $1500 the slightly dull-changing Dualogic automated gearchange is available on the 500.

It took me a while adjusting the seat and steering wheel to get a comfortable driving position, which I never quite achieved - and it always felt a bit compromised. The main thing is how likable the 500 is. Yep, I’d gladly have one. In Australia it would be a 500 Pop for its value, but for my holiday home in the South of France an open roof 500C Twinair.

500 Pop
Engine: 1.2-litre 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual/5-speed Dualogic automated manual
Power: 51/63kW
Torque: 102/145Nm
Performance: 0-100km/h 12.9 seconds
Price: $17,900 at time of review
Text & photos - Paul Blank (copyright)

Above: Interesting size comparison at 2014 Paris Motor Show (photo copyright Paul Blank)