Fiat is renowned for producing more than a fair share of the best of them, with the basic 500 Topolino of the ‘30s being the most famous. Over the years, other models with the 500 – or Cinquecento – moniker appeared and continued the heritage well into the ‘70s before effectively being replaced by the 126. But in 1991, Fiat got nostalgic and released a new Cinquecento model, which lasted seven years before being superseded by the Seicento – 600 in numberspeak – now being made available locally as a fully built-up import.
The 600 label first appeared in 1955 on a less utilitarian model line than the 500, but fell away in 1969. Waving the new Fiat’s flag at local entry level is the S derivative, the model tested here, which includes air-con as standard in its R57 570 price tag. A mechanically similar Sporting version boasts electric power steering, alloy wheels and extra kit for an additional R6 600.
Basically, though, the S has plenty to offer and, because we are talking budget motoring values, the most notable difference, the power steering, proved not to be a cost-conscious hardship. Fully fuelled, but without test equipment on board, the car tipped our scales at a mere 758 kg, and the 3,9 turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock means that piloting a Seicento is never going to be muscle-rippling heavy, even at parking speeds. And without the additional spec of the Sporting, the 1 108 cm3 FIRE engine’s 40 kW has a little less weight to contend with: every saving helps in this situation.
But, obviously, the S is not going to be a ball of, er, fire. However, the engine develops its peak torque of 88 N.m at a remarkably low 2 750 r/min, and manages to charge along quite happily if forethought is given to the use of the gearbox. With little more than 1 000 km on the odo, we expected the S to feel “tight”, which it did, and there is no tacho to act as a guide to the crank’s rotation speed. But the FIRE spins without protest, and out on our test strip we built up revs until it sounded “right”, released the clutch and got the car’s Polish-made Debica 155/65 R13 tyres to spin with some enthusiasm before scurrying away to help the S reach 100 km/h in 15,71 seconds, the kilometre marker in 37,2 seconds at 132,6 km/h, and a two-way average top speed of 151 km/h.
Our steady-at-100 km/h consumption figure of 5,71 litres/100 km translates into an excellent fuel index (i.e. overall figure in mixed driving) of 7,99 litres/100 km – a figure just a tad behind that of the Fiat’s ageing sister, the Uno. (Which, incidentally, has the same basic engine, but in a different state of tune.) A useful range of around 475 km should be possible from a 38-litre tankful of unleaded.
Seicento is a boxy, yet appealing, shape because of its simplicity of line. The nose tapers sharply away from the windscreen, and overhang front and rear is minimal. Although there is an indentation in the shape of a bodyside moulding, there is no protective strip along each flank, merely a simple buffer attached to the edge of the door.
Rear overhang is practically non-existent. The squared-off rump has a full width tailgate that rises to 1 800 mm, although the body-strengthening lower panel that stands proud of the bumper and houses the tail-light clusters is 720 mm high, so the loading aperture is not quite as big as the tailgate’s size might suggest. The opening is large, though, and 128 dm3 of our ISO standard blocks could be stacked under the removable stiff cargo cover.
Tip the rear seat cushion forward and fold the one-piece backrest (requiring the simultaneous release of catches at either end), and utility space increases to 736 dm3. Headlamp beam height adjustment is a surprising convenience item. A full-sized spare wheel sits under the boot’s single piece of trim, a mat, which is attached to the back panel by some flimsy clips.
Inside, does a simple instrument pod housing just speedo and fuel gauge, full-length door bins, and plenty of exposed painted metal around the cabin sound a little familiar? It is a testament to Alec Issigonis’s original Mini design that such features can still be found acceptable more than 40 years on. The bright combination of trim colours – although not particularly well co-ordinated they are, at least, cheerful – and the large window area contribute towards a feeling of spaciousness. And, in truth, it is not an illusion.
Seating positions are fairly high, but there is still plenty of head- and footroom for four (although a centre rear seatbelt is provided, the Seicento is not a realistic five-adult car), and our long-legged editor managed his “sit behind self” test, albeit with knees pressed into the front seat’s soft backing. But to do that in such a small car is an achievement…
Access to the rear through the wide-opening doors is made easier by the spring-loaded tip-forward mechanism of the front seats. The facia consists of deep hammock-like depressions flanking the steering column that, together with the door bins, offer the only oddments stowage, which means nothing can be stored out of sight unless placed in the boot. Mounted on the column is the instrument pod, with white-on-black dials and orange pointers, plus orange backlighting at night. There are digital time and odo readouts, too. Two horn buttons are mounted on the wheel boss.
One of a row of funky hemispherical buttons on the facia operates the rear foglight, the others being for the air-con, heated backlight and hazard warning flashers. Ventilation controls include a four-position blower and air re-circulation. A courtesy light is mounted on the windscreen header rail. The visors are basic and cannot be pivoted to the side, and the headliner-mounted rear-view mirror vibrates enough to blur vision. A remote tailgate release is mounted on the floor.
On the road, the Seicento S proved to be a willing performer, easy to steer and with a firm, but not uncomfortable, ride. Turn-in is linear, and the handling benign: it takes a high entry speed into a bend to provoke any significant understeer. Given the basic level of trim with no obvious sound deadening, the S is remarkably quiet both when accelerating and cruising.
The footwell is reasonably sized, and despite the pedals being offset to the left – the accelerator is noticeably cranked over – there is enough space to rest the left foot. However, driving while wearing big shoes or trainers requires care. Braking performance was disappointing in terms of the stopping average – 3,7 seconds for the test 10 stops from 100 km/h – which may improve with further bedding-in. On a more positive note, though, there was never any suggestion of lock-up.