The Fiat 500 is small, chic and very, very Italian. Think Milan Fashion Week on wheels. There’s a huge selection of personalisation options available, not to mention a convertible model and a range of potent hot hatch editions.
The original Fiat 500 dates back to the fifties, but the name was revived on an all-new model in 2007, drawing heavily on its predecessor’s iconic styling.
Since then it’s received some subtle chassis tweaks in 2014 and a more substantial facelift for the 2016 model. As a result, this popular little car is now better than ever.
Most Fiat 500 buyers lean towards the 1.2-litre petrol engine, and with good reason – it’s willing, economical and reasonably hushed. It’s also the cheapest in the range, although it can feel a little breathless on the motorway.
The tiny 0.9-litre TwinAir engine offers a useful step up in performance, along with a characterful two-cylinder soundtrack. On paper, it also promises exceptionally good fuel consumption, but most drivers will struggle to get anywhere near the claimed 74.3 mpg.
Also, while the TwinAir was once exempt from road tax (on account of its very low CO2 output) the new VED bands coming in April 2017 mean you’ll now pay almost as much as the other engines in the range.
For those who do a lot of motorway miles the 1.3-litre diesel is torquey, flexible and the most economical of the lot at a claimed 83.1 mpg.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Abarth-badged hot hatches deliver serious performance for such small cars, particularly in 595 and 695 form.
Ride and handling
The Fiat 500 was built for driving around town. It’s small, easy to manoeuvre and fantastically simple to park. There’s even a ‘City’ button that lightens the steering. Although we’d question the need for that, given that the default setting is hardly a workout.
At low speeds the standard 500 does a good job of soaking up bumps and potholes. The ride can get a little bouncy out on the open road, but the same can be said of a lot of other small cars.
The sporty Abarth versions, on the other hand, have a decidedly firm ride. Body roll is almost completely absent as a result, though, and quick steering contributes to pin-sharp responses.
Interior and space
The retro theme continues inside the Fiat 500. It’s a bright and airy with splashes of colour and the occasional dollop of chrome. All the interior surfaces look good, although some can feel a little flimsy to the touch.
Relative to its exterior dimensions, Fiat has done a good job of maximising space in the 500’s interior. There’s no getting away from the fact it is a small car, though.
The front seats are actually quite spacious, although some drivers may struggle with the limited range of seating adjustment and the closely-spaced pedals. In the back, however, head and leg room are both quite tight for grownups.
Likewise, while the boot is more than enough for the weekly shop, it still sits towards the more compact end of its class at 185 litres.
So, it’s hardly a people carrier, but the Fiat 500 is loaded with feel-good factor. There’s also a multitude of personalisation options, plus a number of special editions, including one modelled on the famously exclusive Riva speedboats.
Higher spec models come with a good infotainment system, which includes a 5-inch touchscreen display, DAB radio and Bluetooth. Lower down the range the same system can be specified as a £350 option, while £700 gets you an upgraded system with satellite navigation and a 7-inch display.
It’s also safe. Despite its diminutive size, the Fiat 500 was awarded the top five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests. All models come with an impressive seven airbags as standard, plus electronic brake force distribution and a hill-hold function.
What to know before you buy
The Fiat 500’s reliability record seems to be improving, with less reported issues as time goes on. There have been a number of recalls, though, particularly on the earlier models. These include issues with the brakes, steering and fuel lines. If you’re buying secondhand, it’s worth checking the GOV.UK website to see if your car was affected, but most of these should have been put right by now.
Other reported issues include a tendency for some examples to wear out brakes and shock absorbers quicker than expected, plus various electrical niggles.
Fundamentally, though, major problems are fairly rare and all models come with a three year 60,000-mile warranty if you’re buying new. Residual values are also pretty strong, thanks to the Fiat 500’s enduring appeal.
What are the alternatives?
If you’re after retro styling, the MINI hatchback is an obvious alternative. It’s bigger, better built and more fun to drive, but it’s also substantially more expensive and just that little bit more serious than the cheeky Fiat 500.
In terms of traditional city cars, the Hyundai i10 lacks the Fiat’s sparkle, but it’s significantly more practical, usefully cheaper and it comes with an impressive five-year warranty. The Volkswagen Up is also worth a look, along with its sister cars, the Skoda Citigo and the Seat Mii.
The Fiat 500 makes a good used buy if you are not planning on commuting long distances. It is less pricey than many rivals, and its adorable appearance and retro styling add to its appeal.
The Twinair model produces very low CO2, too, so it is excused from the London Congestion Charge. Also, and very reassuringly, the Fiat scored a maximum 5-star rating in the gruelling Euro NCAP crash test safety programme.
When it achieved this, it was the first time that a car of such compact dimensions had achieved a top rating. Astonishingly, a vehicle of its type is also equipped with seven airbags as standard. This Fiat is an easy on the pocket, compact car that’s perfect for the urban driver.