The 500 Sport model has an athletic vibe with its 16-inch alloy wheels and specific side skirts, bumpers and rear spoiler. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The 500 Sport model has an athletic vibe with its 16-inch alloy wheels and  specific side skirts, bumpers and rear spoiler. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The first Fiat 500 (Cinquecento in Italian) was one of the original purpose-designed city cars. Just 2.97m long and powered by a 479cc rear-mounted two-cylinder engine, the tiny rear-engined four-seater built from 1957 to 1975 was an affordable urban commuter for the masses, which along the way happened to garner something of a cult following for its puppy-cute design.

In 2007 Fiat launched the new-generation 500, and though the engine was moved to the front and things became a lot more hi-tech, the diminutive Italian car still has more in common with its predecessor than new-generation Beetles or Minis have with their own forebears.

Rather than just being a bloated car in a retro-chic skin, the 500 remains a pipsqueak with a length of just 3.54m, which seems hardly large enough to accommodate its seven airbags. It’s the smallest new car you can buy in SA, and makes an Opel Corsa seem like a veritable giant in comparison.

It has a pipsqueak of an engine too: an 875cc TwinAir unit with just two cylinders like its granddaddy, though a turbocharger gives it a much more usable 63kW than the pedestrian 9.6kW of its progenitor.

It’s a surprisingly peppy performer, scooting through suburbs with the verve of a kitten chasing a ball of wool, or 0-100km/h in 11 seconds to be precise. There’s some turbo lag but this isn’t problematic in the manual Fiat 500 Sport model with some clutch-throttle gymnastics — unlike the Fiat 500 Dolcevita model which has an automated manual transmission.

Moreover, the car is perky enough to escape city limits. It makes a relatively easy-going open road cruiser with a 173km/h top speed that ensures it needn’t be bullied out of the fast lane.

Apealingly styled cabin with plenty of modcons for R274,900. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Apealingly styled cabin with plenty of modcons for R274,900. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The hoarse motorcycle-like sound of its TwinAir engine is always prominent — and not necessarily in a bad way as I found it more charming than intrusive. But the car was also vocally exuberant in terms of wind and road noise, and required the radio volume to be cranked up as the car’s speed rose.

Using a two-cylinder engine was more to do with saving fuel than historical significance, and Fiat claims the little runt will sip just 4.0l/100km. The test car averaged 5.7l in an urban/freeway mix.

Along with the aforementioned feline-like agility, the 500 is easy to park and its ride quality is pretty settled for a small car. With its short wheelbase it does feel choppy on bumpier roads, but without becoming uncomfortably jittery.

The Fiat 500 was recently refreshed with new trim levels, updated colours and revised interior. A minor facelift comprises restyled daytime running lights that are inspired by the zero in the 500 logo, and the vehicle is now available in new Cult, Connect, Dolcevita and Sport trim levels.

Priced at R274,900 with a five-year/100,000km warranty, the 500 Sport model has an athletic vibe with its 16-inch alloy wheels and Sport badging, along with specific side skirts, bumpers and rear spoiler. The cabin lays on the charm with a titanium-look dashboard and red 500 logo, and the new “arrow electro” leather-cloth seats are stylish and provide good support. It has a sunroof too, though when you do want to block out the sun, the thin screen provided is essentially useless.

It’s a surprisingly peppy performer in suburbs and on the open road. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
It’s a surprisingly peppy performer in suburbs and on the open road. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The 14-year-old Fiat is up to date with its infotainment, including a tablet-sized touchscreen with Bluetooth, voice recognition and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. A digital instrument cluster and automatic air conditioning are part of a well-specced features list. 

Along with its seven airbags, ABS brakes and Electronic Stability Control take care of the safety aspect.

Not surprisingly, the bite-sized two-door car offers limited family practicality. The back seat is cramped for adults and the boot is tiny, though with the rear seats folded down we were able to squeeze a bicycle inside.

The size disadvantage over price rivals such as the Polo Vivo and Ford Figo isn’t necessarily a hindrance to the Fiat 500’s target market. This Italian fashion accessory is all about its retro-chic image and charm. The fact that it’s also fun to drive is a bonus, and it also doesn’t skimp on the gizmos and safety.

COMPETITION

Ford Figo hatch 1.5 Titanium — R253,300

Volkswagen Polo Vivo hatch 1.6 Highline — R272,800

Kia Sonet 1.5 LX — R275,995

Citroen C3 1.2 Feel — R279,900

Mini One hatch 3dr — R401,050

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