Can the latest version of the Fiat 500 keep pace with the competition more than a decade on from its UK launch? Massimo Pini has been driving a feisty new 500S to find out.
Although instantly recognisable as the retro-themed city car inspired by the Nuova 500 launched in 1957, a fair amount has actually been refreshed and renewed since the ‘current’ Fiat 500 arrived in the UK back in January 2008.
The S model is effectively the sportiest 500 you can get if you want to keep it badged as a Fiat, rather than an Abarth. Having said that, the S is still just a trim level so it’s available with all of the engine options including the entry-level 69bhp 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol unit, which will set you back just over £13,500.
But an extra £1,500 or so will get you the rorty 875cc TwinAir two-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine fitted to our test car. Pumping out 105bhp and 107lb ft of torque, it will whisk the relatively lightweight 500 (940kg) to 62mph from a standstill in 10 seconds flat on its way to a top speed of 117mph. The six-speed gearbox is a welcome addition, especially for motorway driving, which is far more relaxing than it is in five-speed versions.
The 500 S is neither as stiffly sprung, nor as powerful as an Abarth, but make no mistake, there’s still plenty of fun to be had in this punchy little Italian. Working the sweet-shifting gearbox is rewarding although not at the pumps, of course – you’ll struggle to get close to Fiat’s claimed 67.3mpg – but this car is more about smiles per gallon!
The 500’s ability to engender a positive emotional response seems to have waned little in the past 10 years. Among my daughter’s peer group of 12-year olds, it received universal praise, rated by one as, “the next coolest car after a Porsche”.
Fiat has been canny in not messing with the 500’s basic design, focussing instead on a programme of ongoing refinement and limited edition roll-outs offering customers more choice in terms of colour, trim and style.
Living in London, I see Fiat 500s everywhere and yet, this latest S model - with its stylish Marching Green paintwork (an optional extra) and satin grey finish where the chrome usually resides - definitely succeeds in standing out from the crowd. My other half asked specifically how much the fancy paint cost (£750, by the way), such was the impact of the cool ‘matt look’.
Thanks to large-ish seats for the size of the car and the position of the B-post due to the long doors which facilitate access to the rear seats, just grappling for the seatbelt proved quite a feat at times, and I snagged my fingers on a few occasions before I eventually adapted to a new technique that worked rather better and preserved my digits.
The suspension copes pretty well around town over reasonably sized speed bumps and moderate imperfections in the road surface but when it comes to more severe potholes it crashes really loudly, to the point that I had to get out of the car three times during my week to check that the front wheel had not simply buckled and/or fallen off! Large wheels and a short wheelbase don’t generally add up to fantastic ride comfort but this is clearly a weak point nonetheless.
Hitting the open road, the 500 S starts to come into its own as wind roar replaces engine noise which settles to an acceptable hum at motorway speeds, as it transforms into a comfortable cruiser in 6th gear.
The chassis is a way off the best that the hot hatch class has to offer; the game has simply moved on. But even though it lacks the composure of more modern rivals, it just begs to be driven quickly along twisting B-Roads and I often found myself taking the long way home.
At low speeds the TwinAir’s distinctive spluttery soundtrack takes a bit of getting used to – on balance, I’d describe it as characterful – but as the revs begin to rise, the engine noise builds into a thrumming and rather exhilarating crescendo!
So yes, the 500 S has its flaws. Other sporty city cars like the Volkswagen Up! GTI certainly offer greater refinement and practicality but the baby Fiat has an abundance of charm and character that make buyers look past its shortcomings - and they continue to flock to the showrooms in ever greater numbers: bizarrely, after more than a decade on the market, the Fiat 500 is enjoying record sales!
In this sector of the market, it seems clear that charisma is king. It’s an attribute that’s very hard to manufacture and almost impossible to copy, so the little Fiat enjoys a uniquely cool status and when it’s paired with the peppy TwinAir engine, it’s almost irresistible.