The entry-level 1.2-litre petrol isn’t fast, but it’s perky enough and loves to be revved, which suits the 500’s cheeky nature. You might be tempted by the more powerful and seemingly more efficient 0.9 Twinairs (turbocharged two-cylinders), but while both versions (84bhp and 104bhp) inject a bit more performance into the baby Fiat, real-world fuel economy is very disappointing (more on that later). We’d say avoid both.
This isn’t the 500’s strongest suit. Things are never uncomfortably firm or jarring, but the car never quite settles – no matter what the road or speed. Along typical uneven backstreets you’ll often find yourself doing an involuntary impression of a nodding dog, while potholes and larger intrusions tend to send shudders through the cabin as the Fiat’s suspension struggles to cope.
You won’t be surprised to learn the 500 is at its best when picking its way through crowded urban streets. This is thanks to its small dimensions and light steering, which can be made even lighter by pressing a ‘city’ button on the dashboard. Break away from the hustle and bustle of the city, though, and the 500 fails to sparkle. The handling is too roly-poly, and the steering doesn’t weight up enough when you’re cornering quickly, which leaves you feeling somewhat disconnected from the front wheels.
Living with the 1.2-litre 500 on a day-to-day basis shouldn’t prove too tiresome, because while the engine is audible, it is also pretty smooth. The 0.9-litre Twinairs are the really big offenders, though; they’re noisy and send far to many vibrations up through the steering wheel and pedals when you accelerate.
Although wind and road noise in the 500 become increasingly noticeable as your speed rises, they never get to irritating levels – even on the motorway.
The 500’s manual gearshift is light but rather vague, but it’s preferable to the optional and decidedly jerky Dualogic semi-automatic ’box.
There’s no height-adjustable driver’s seat on either the Pop or Pop Star trims, and although Fiat claims there is on the Lounge version, in reality the lever on the side of your chair merely changes the angle of the base, not the height of it.
The steering wheel adjusts for height but not reach, which will also prevent many people finding the ideal driving position – although this is an issue that also affects most of the 500’s rivals, including the Hyundai i10 and Volkswagen Up.
Still, at least the 500’s heater controls are relatively straightforward to use, in spite of the dashboard’s retro styling, and the gearlever is mounted conveniently high up on the centre console.
The 500 isn’t as easy to see out of as its boxier sibling, the Panda, nor the Hyundai i10 or Volkswagen Up for that matter. However, there are no major obstructions whichever direction you’re looking out of, and the extremities of the car are easy to judge.
Lounge editions have standard rear parking sensors, which make it even easier to park in tight parking spaces. These are also available as an option on Pop and Pop Star trims.
Pop and Popstar Fiat 500s get a simple Uconnect system to control the Radio and CD player that consists of a colour screen and menu buttons. A multifunction steering wheel, USB socket and aux connection are also included.
Standard on Lounge trim, and optional on Pop and Pop Star is a 5.0in colour touchscreen with Bluetooth. DAB radio costs extra, though.
For even more, Fiat will add sat-nav to every model. It’s an inbuilt TomTom system that’s easy to navigate but not the most responsive or slick-looking. The touchscreen can be upgraded on Lounge trim to a larger 7.0in version, but whatever its size, bright sunlight can hinder the screen’s visibility.
Most of the plastics and fabrics used in the 500’s interior suit its retro image. Even the cheapest Pop model has the face of its dashboard painted the same colour as the outside of the car, which really livens things up.
You won’t find any soft-touch plastics elsewhere on the dash (or anywhere else for the matter) and build quality isn’t quite on a par with rivals’, but the 500’s cabin doesn’t feel too cheap or shoddily assembled, and the switchgear all is robust enough.
Although the front seats are mounted fairly high in the cabin, you’re only likely to have issues with head room if you’re very tall. Likewise, the seats slide back far enough to just about accommodate long-legged drivers. Somewhat less impressive is the cramped pedal area that blights all right-hand drive models, and the lack of a proper footrest, which is particularly annoying on longer motorway journeys. The bulbous centre console is also very easy to bash your left knee on.
The 500’s interior is a fine example of style over function; that body-coloured face on the dashboard looks great but means the glovebox that sits below it is very pokey, and the door bins are even smaller. At least there are two good-sized cupholders below the dash-mounted gearlever.
Getting into the back to start with isn’t as easy as in many rivals because the 500 has only three doors. As with many of the Fiat’s city car rivals, there are only two seats in the back, but although two adults will fit, there isn’t as much head- or legroom as there is in a VW Up, let alone a Hyundai i10.
It’s also very disappointing that Fiat charges extra for rear head restraints (as a package with folding rear seats) on the entry-level Pop – you shouldn’t even consider carrying anyone in the back without paying extra for these crucial safety aids.
Given the 500’s dinky dimensions it’s hardly surprising that storage in the rear cabin isn’t great, although all versions apart from the entry-level Pop have pockets in the front seatbacks.
You have to pay extra for split-folding rear seats on entry-level Pop trim, but all other 500s get these as standard. You push a button on the top of the backrest from inside the rear cabin, pull the 50/50 split seatback towards you and down it folds.
That’s your lot, though, because the rear seats don’t do anything else clever and, disappointingly, no version is available with a height-adjustable front passenger seat.
There’s enough room for a few shopping bags in the 185-litre boot. However, rivals such as the Hyundai i10 and VW Up have considerably bigger load areas, with smaller lips at the entrance and wider boot openings.
Fold down the rear seats and the space grows considerably. The seats lie at a slight angle, but not enough to cause any real headaches, although it’s a shame there’s no false floor to iron out the annoying step in the extended load area when the seats are down.
A luggage compartment organiser is available as a dealer-fit option if you want to keep fragile items from flying about when you go round corners.
The 500 isn’t as cheap to buy as many of its rivals, many of which have more doors and more standard equipment. Discounts are available, but are smaller than you can expect on any of Fiat’s other models due to high demand.
However, the flipside of the 500’s strong desirability is that it will hold on to its value better than many of its peers.
The two-cylinder Twinair petrols will tempt those searching for low running costs. However, although the low CO2 emissions of these engines make for cheap company car tax bills, you’ll be disappointed by their real-world fuel economy, which our True MPG tests have shown to be miles short of the official government figures. We’d recommend the much cheaper 1.2 petrol to the vast majority of buyers.
You can spend an awful lot of money on a Fiat 500, but it’s the cheaper trims that make the most sense. The cheapest of which is Pop, which comes with a USB, an aux-in connector, stereo controls on the steering wheel, electric front windows, remote central locking and electrically adjustable door mirrors. Air-conditioning is notable by its absence, as are alloys wheel (steel rims with plastic trims come as standard).
Next up is our favourite trim, Pop Star, which adds alloys, air-con and split-folding rear seats. Or, if you want a few more luxuries, consider Lounge trim. This brings a 5.0in touchscreen with Bluetooth, a leather steering wheel, rear parking sensors, climate control, a driver’s seat-height adjuster, along with some extra chrome detailing.
Of course, when you’ve settled on a trim, you’ll have access to a myriad of personalisation options to make your 500 stand out from the crowd, from chrome door mirrors to Italian flags emblazoned across the roof.
The 500 was one of the least reliable cars in its class according to the most recent ownership satisfaction survey. Owners complained about a comparatively high number of seat and fuel cap problems, while the heating and ventilation system also caused plenty of headaches.
Like all Fiats, the 500 comes with a two-year manufacturer warranty and plus a further one-year dealer warranty. Mileage is limited to 100,000 during that three-year period, unless you plan to use the car for hire or reward (ie to rent it out or use it as a taxi), in which case the mileage limits drops to 60,000.
All models have seven airbags as standard – including a driver’s knee ’bag that’s a relatively unusual feature in this class – and the 500 was awarded the maximum five-star rating by safety body Euro NCAP. However, it’s important to stress this was under an older, less stringent set of criteria than newly launched cars are tested under.
There’s no option of a city braking system, which some rivals offer, but all versions come with stability control – an important safety aid that helps prevent you sliding off the road in slippery conditions – and a tyre-pressure monitor.
Disappointingly, though, no version comes with an alarm system; if you want one you’ll have to pay extra and have it fitted by your dealer. This explains the poor ratings awarded by Thatcham for the 500’s resistance to being stolen or broken into.
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