- Updated 06 August 2020
- 7 minute read
- By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
Since its launch in 2008, the Fiat 500 has cemented itself as one of Britain’s most desirable small cars, with its artfully retro italian styling looking as at home in the university car park as it does outside the office. It’s like a little black dress – perfect for any occasion, and incredibly popular with younger buyers.
What’s the appeal? The looks help – the 500 is quite unlike anything else on the road, and because it’s inspired by a car launched in the 1950s, it will always have classic appeal. A decade on, the 500 remains refreshingly cheerful and upbeat in a world dominated by aggressive SUVs and bland crossovers.
Personalisation is another factor. Fiat says there are 500,000 possible ways to configure a 500, so you can make yours exactly as you want it. So what if it doesn't have the practicality or extended warranty length of some rivals - this is a car designed to make you feel good every day.
Read on for our full Fiat 500 review.
Looks, tech and design
Only those with a cold heart and a penchant for mild drizzle could fail to love the cheeky styling of the Fiat 500. While some things are best left in the past – like that Tinder date from last month or the time you got carried away at a karaoke night – rebooting the 500 was an inspired decision.
Fiat will tell you the range kicks off at around £12,000 for the Pop trim, but ask yourself this: are you really going to drive around in a Fiat 500 rolling on steel wheels and without air conditioning? That would be like going to a steakhouse and ordering a salad.
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Upgrading to the Lounge adds air conditioning, 15-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Bluetooth phone connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, leather steering wheel, rear parking sensors, cruise control, fog lights and a chrome kit. All of which I'd consider to be must-haves.
Crucially, the Lounge also features a height adjustable driver’s seat and a split folding rear seat. Not the sexiest things you’ll find on a spec sheet, but over the course of a three-year PCP deal, you’re likely to make use of them.
Want even more kit? The Star trim features a neat 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster, 16-inch alloy wheels and a fixed sunroof, while Sport includes a bodykit, satin graphite exterior details, a sports steering wheel and 15-inch alloy wheels. The Rockstar is essentially a combination of the two.
Although being the 500, Fiat's always keen to keep on top of trends, and you may find the range has changed again since I wrote this. It's also worth checking out the latest special editions. Over the years there have included collaborations with Diesel and Gucci as well as models celebrating Fiat's association with Ferrari and the firm's recent 120th anniversary. These tend to be pre-loaded with desirable options, not to mention bespoke styling upgrades.
Speaking of options, Fiat doesn’t charge a great deal for extras – £950 for a leather interior is likely to be your biggest outlay – but take time to find the features that work for you. Check out the online configurator and look at all the available choices. It’s all part of the fun of buying a car like this.
While you’re looking, you might want to consider the 500C, in which the ‘C’ stands for Convertible. It’s not a convertible in the strictest sense – more like an extended fabric sunroof that folds down electrically – but on those three and a half days when the sun shines in Britain, you might be glad you spent the extra £2,500 or so to go topless.
Alternatively, if you’re after a 500 with a touch more muscle, the Abarth 595 and 695 are tenacious little automotive terriers. They’re not traditional hot hatches or as sophisticated as some rivals, but like vodka shots they pack lots of punch into a small package. Great fun.
First and foremost, the Fiat 500 is a car designed for two, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cram a couple of friends in the back. The front seats fold forward to provide a wide opening and there’s enough room back there for a day trip. The small boot is a bigger limiting factor.
Up front the 500 has an unusually high driving position for a small car. This will put off some people, but it also helps with the view of the road ahead and may even make you feel more secure. There's plenty of head room, too.
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Fair to say, the 500 doesn't have the softest suspension, especially if you opt for a model with 16-inch wheels. This has improved on more recent versions, but you may find yourself learning more about the state of Britain’s roads than you really wanted to while driving one of these. Certainly, rivals such as the Volkswagen Up are more forgiving - if also less appealing on the eye.
In the city, the Fiat 500 loves being chucked about, darting into corners and squeezing through tight spaces. The light steering comes into its own, especially if you press the ‘City’ button, which lightens it even further to make parking a doddle. It's a bit of a scrabbler, rather than a really polished driving experience - particularly compared with something like a Mini or even a Ford Fiesta. But even if it sometimes feels a bit out of its depth on the motorway, you’ll enjoy driving the Fiat 500 because it’s like a friend who is out for a good time, stylish and fun.
Cost and economy
The retro charm comes at a price, which means there are cheaper small cars on the market. Opt for a Hyundai i10 or Kia Picanto and you’ll get far more toys for your money, plus a warranty long enough to take you into middle age.
But here’s the thing. After a few months, you’ll still love your Fiat 500, while most other city cars will be little more than a mode of transport. What's more, because it's popular it holds its value well, which is great news for monthly finance pricing.
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Do your homework, though, as I've found that more desirable models such as the Lounge areoften hardly any more expensive per month than the entry-level Pop - and you get a lot more car for your money with one of those. Think of the difference in terms of your monthly coffee spend and you'll see how little it really is.
The basic 1.2-litre petrol engine is perfectly fine around town, and can return as much as 45 miles per gallon. Fiat also sells the 500 with a more expensive 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol with just two cylinders - very unusual. This is quirky and characterful and capable of even better fuel economy on paper, but while I've always found it fun, you do have to work it rather hard, and doing so makes it very thirsty.
If you’ve got your heart set on a Fiat 500, nothing I say here will change your mind. It’s that kind of car – purchases tend to be driven by emotional rather than rational considerations. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sure, it was launched before Justin Bieber released his first single – yes, it was that long ago. Yet a series of facelifts and updates have kept the 500 current and it remains one of the most stylish small cars on sale.
Other are better to drive, and many rivals are more practical. But nothing else is quite like a Fiat 500. If you like it, buy it.
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