Fiat 500 1.4 Sport (2008) Driving Impression

Fiat 500 2008

Better late than never, the saying goes. In the case of the new Fiat 500 however, could it be that the Italian marque has missed the retro fashion craze entirely and launched its diminutive reborn icon about a decade too late? After all, the cars that managed to cash in on the craze (some more so than others) all debuted around the turn of the millennium. And let’s not forget the premium pricing, either. Starting at nearly R50 000 more than other similarly sized and specified cars, has Fiat simply rendered the 500 completely irrelevant in the modern car market?

Now add in Fiat South Africa’s poor reputation for service and reliability, and you start to get some idea of the brand building that the reincarnated little Cinquecento is supposed to achieve. Inspired… but not a rehash Yes, of course… the Fiat 500 is very clearly inspired by its illustrious predecessor from the era of La dolce vita (“the good life”, Italy in the ‘50s), and it is said that an entire generation of Italians were either born or conceived in a 500.

Fiat 500 packed with features

But park the two next to one another and you’ll be startled… the new car looks like a giant compared with the miniscule original. Next to other small cars of today, though, the new baby Fiat 500 is very compact. That it manages to pack no fewer than seven airbags into that cabin, along with a long list of standard safety and entertainment features speaks volumes of Fiat’s legendary small-car expertise. And yes, it is very cute, and very distinctive. Fiat also offers a vast range of personalisation options to individualise your Fiat 500. Some of these are borderline atrocious.

Open the surprisingly long and weighty feeling doors, and you’re greeted with a very imaginative interior. Going completely against the modern belief that interiors can only be black with silver or chrome detailing (or wood, if you must), the entire width of the Fiat 500 facia can be covered in a plastic trim piece the same colour as the exterior of the car. It really adds some vibrancy to the cabin. In this trim level the seats are partially covered with leather, and feature nice side bolstering but unfortunately the height adjustment on offer for the driver’s seat is extremely limited. Consequently the seating position is too high for taller folk. Otherwise, however, space in front is good, with rake adjustment on offer from the steering wheel as well.

Predictably, rear legroom is very tight, if not completely negligible, and the boot, claimed to swallow 185 litres of luggage, is also limited in size. The rear seats can be folded forward, however, and most single, city dwelling owners (the target market) will undoubtedly often make use of this feature. A feature worth highlighting is the standard Blue & Me infotainment system, which includes Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port for portable music playback – a nice-to-have feature that will certainly be appreciated by the aforementioned target audience.

Perky performance for new Fiat 500

Under the 500’s stubby bonnet is the brand’s well-known 74 kW 1,4-litre petrol engine that delivers 131 Nm of torque – certainly not earth-shattering stuff, but then remember the car only weighs 930 kg! The power goes to the front wheels via a surprisingly slick six-speed manual transmission which certainly rates as one of Fiat’s better efforts. Combine all of these factors and what you have is a car that feels livelier than expected. The 0-100 km/h dash is completed in just over 10 seconds, and it actually feels even faster than that because the exhaust note is quite sporty too. A nice touch is the Sport button on the facia. Around town and in normal mode, the car’s steering is very light. Press the Sport button, however, and it gains a measure weight. At the same time the throttle response becomes sharper too.

The suspension is impressively sorted, which deserves lots of credit because to make a car with such a short wheelbase and relatively high centre of gravity feel stable and fun, yet at the same time maintain a measure of ride comfort, is not easy. All of this makes the Fiat 500 lots of fun to drive.

Fiat 500 - Verdict

Judge the Fiat 500 purely by what is measurable, and it comes up well, er, short. For its weight and engine, the fuel economy is not great (you’ll struggle to match 6,3 L/100 km). At the price, there are far more practical cars to buy. And yet, somehow, the little fiat 500 worms its way into your heart to such an extent that these little quirks can be forgiven. It is entirely different to its predecessor which was an honest, cheap mode of transport for Italy’s masses, but still Fiat has managed to capture a degree of the original’s sweet persona, making it instantly appealing. We suspect the Fiat 500 will do rather well…

We like: · Cute… but not ridiculously fluffy · Standard equipment · Fun to drive · Build quality

We don’t like: · Very limited luggage space · Seating adjustment

Fast Facts Engine: 1,4-litre, four-cylinder, petrol Power: 74 kW @ 6 000 rpm Torque: 131 Nm @ 4 250 rpm Transmission: Six-speed manual Wheels: 15-inch alloy Top speed: 182 km/h 0-100 km/h: 10,5 seconds Fuel economy: 6,3 litres/100 km


Also consider:

· Mini Cooper: Doesn’t cost a great deal more and is bigger, though ultimately not that much more practical. Whereas the Fiat is arguably even more faithful to the spirit of its forebear, the Mini is possibly more in tune with today’s market. These models are similarly equipped.

· Volvo C30 1,6: Fresh on the scene, the C30 looks like a serious contender. It offers very individualistic looks without having to resort to blatant retro-ism. The cabin is more practical than the Fiat’s and the build quality top-notch, too. Deserves serious consideration.

· Nissan Micra 1,4 Tekna 3-dr: Nissan rather cheeky homage to the original Fiat 500 debuted a long time before Fiat’s own. Similarly curvy and cute, this Tekna version is however loaded with more features, yet the price is significantly lower. Still… it just doesn’t have the same emotional appeal as the real thing (the Fiat).