The modern version of the Fiat 500 was launched back in 2007 with a four-cylinder engine option but it wasn’t until the TwinAir two-cylinder 500 model launched in 2016, with a much lower entry-price, that the hatch really started to make its presence felt here in numbers.
This was not only due to the lower price-tag. That 875 cc turbocharged petrol-twin has a wonderful character that perfectly suits the little Fiat bug. The engine has a gruff note on start-up, and there is some mild vibration to be felt through the throttle pedal. This soon becomes part of the car’s charm, rather than an irritant, especially when you give the accelerator a firm prod and the turbo boost kicks in at around the 3 000 r/min mark.
The amount of thrust is very enjoyable from this point, and the engine now sounds like a mini-Subaru flat-four!
The gear change in the manual model is extremely well-weighted and solid. That statement in fact, goes for the way the Fiat 500 is put together as a whole. There is an overall feeling of classiness to the car that indicates a fine build quality and all the materials used in the cabin – dashboard, seat coverings, carpeting, are of very good perceived quality. The car, incidentally, is built in Tychy, Poland.
The ride and handling is very sophisticated. It rides over bumps well and there is none of the choppiness that you might expect from a car with a wheelbase that is measures just 2 300 mm. However, that small wheelbase means that rear seat passenger space is extremely tight and adults will not be happy in the rear seat for longer than a quick trip to the local mall. It’s fine for families with small children, but realistically this is a car where you use the rear seats for stowage space.
On the highway, stability is good although you are aware that that you are in a small car by the way it changes direction quickly even with small inputs on the steering wheel. What you will be very pleased to note is that at highway cruising speeds, a fuel consumption figure of between 4,8 and 5,0 L/100 km is very easily attainable, and with careful driving you will be averaging around 5,5 L/100 km. Fiat claim 4,0 L/100 km average. Like most manufacturers though, they use the rather unrealistic standard EU fuel tests for these claims.
On the launch in Johannesburg late last week, I also had a chance to drive the Dolcevita model which uses an automatic-clutch transmission. I found the best way to drive it was to select the manual mode rather than the full automatic setting. For smooth, quick shifts, the trick is to lift off the pedal as you flip the paddle levels to a higher gear. Then operates just like a manual with minimal delays between shifts.
If you forget to down-shift when slowing and then stopping at a traffic light, the gearbox will automatically do it for you, even in manual mode.
So, is the Fiat 500 still a relevant car in our market? My answer would be a definite “yes”. It is a special niche model, albeit a little on the pricey side that gives you an enormous amount of pleasure in normal commuting, mainly because of that charismatic twin-cylinder engine.
Given the high quality of the interior, the fact that comes with seven airbags and all modern safety systems including traction control and hill-start assists, means it offers peace -of-mind. And the good torque characteristics of the little turbo engine mean that top-gear cruising on the highway at 120 km/h is the order of the day.
Fiat says there is no specific demographic for its 500 customer base as it is nought by consumers young and old, high-style urban types as well as conservative pensioners who like the idea of a small car that has a unique appearance.
We would go along with that. As long as you are willing to accept that it is effectively a two-seater with occasional accommodation for rear-seat passengers, the Fiat 500 remains a motoring tonic.
By Stuart Johnson