Team Y’s motoring expert climbs into the latest incarnation of a classic – and finds it as appealing as ever.
If Karl Benz invented the motorcar, and Henry Ford’s Model T marked the era of the affordable car for the pre-WWII era, then humble vehicles such as the Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Beetle really drove onto the motoring map in the mid 20th Century.
Today, its sales numbers may be a drop in the ocean when compared to those of the big boys from Asia and the United States – but with nearly 3.9 million units sold, the Fiat 500 was once a sales sensation.
Small and unassuming on the outside, yet chock-full of emotion and sentiment on the inside, the Fiat 500 – a.k.a. the ‘Cinquecento’ – was once the hallmark of economical Italian cars.
Those are traits that solely lie in the hands of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Lamborghini, now – but surprisingly, the Fiat 500 still powers onwards… like a fighter unflustered in battle.
While the original Fiat 500, which was produced between 1957 and 1975, bit the dust long ago, the brand’s reboot (in 2007) strives to keep the original recipe intact but with the niceties you’d find in a modern car.
So, it’s safe to say our 2019MY tester is possibly the most refined 500 we’ve ever driven.
Despite aligning itself as a premium hatchback today, the car keeps its retro pastiche intact with a flat fascia, rounded headlamps, halo-style daytime running LED lights, and soft curves around the side profile with wide flares on the arches.
The rear, on the other hand, is clean. The tail lamps are now LED-lit and wrap around a piece of body-coloured trim. Aside from that, there are plenty of chrome and race-inspired stickers to eke out a glance or two from passers-by. It’s a great-looking car.
Our ‘Lounge’ variant also received a rounded rectangle chrome tail pipe and chic 15-inch multi-spoke alloys that proudly don ‘500’ badges on the large centre hubcap. Fiat says that the new refresh brings 1,800 changes to the pre-refresh car from last year, but there’s no way you’ll mistake this for any other hatchback.
Everything is undeniably Fiat – including the interior.
Keep away the large UConnect touchscreen and digital instrument cluster and it’s like hopping into one of the classics: the dashboard holds on to the large body-coloured panel from its earlier days although it now wraps around the a/c and radio controls around it.
It’s a premium-feeling cabin, and the infotainment screen is easier to use than ever before. It also packs several useful driver functions, and complements the large screen on the circular instrument cluster that displays speed and music information.
Meanwhile, the seats are finished in soft, high-quality fabrics and are quite sizeable upfront. The seating position is higher than anticipated but this makes for great visibility when trundling around city roads.
Believe it or not: space is adequate for a full-sized adult in the rear if the front seats are pushed up although legroom can be a mixed bag. Still, there’s plenty of head room and lighting inside to curb the effects of claustrophobia.
Safety-wise, the Fiat 500 comes with the usual suite of driver aids such as ESC, traction control and ABS, and front and side curtain airbags.
Underneath the small hood lies a 1.4-litre naturally-aspirated four-pot banger. Power is rated at 100hp while 131Nms is cranked to the front wheels via a 5-speed auto-manual transmission (AMT). This ensures a fuel efficiency rating of 17.2km/l, making it one of the most efficient cars in this segment.
With a curb weight of just over 1,000kg, the 500 is eager to get moving, powering through the gears quickly to match up with the high-revving engine.
It’s a gutsy car for most parts, hitting the 100kph mark in about 10.5 seconds on a good day – a remarkable achievement for a small and economy-minded engine such as this. The gearbox complements the efforts, even if it does emanate the quirks of a traditional AMT.
However, it’s worth noting that this is the smoothest AMT gearbox we’ve tested in a modern car. Jolts are prominent in the cabin but the clutch is always in control of the gear to follow.
This eliminates any unprecedented clutch or axle hopping that has plagued cars with AMT.
Keeping that aside, the 500 rides well for a hatchback with a short wheelbase. The 185/55 tyres and suspension work in tandem to do a great job in ironing out smaller bumps while there’s never too much body roll to unsettle the car in sharp turns.
While body roll is controlled well, we were impressed by the steering setup. It’s a sharp and well-weighted steering system that offers just enough feedback to engage the driver midway through a corner.
It’s a soulful little car for the most part, settling into its speeds and happily staying there; even if our tester didn’t come with cruise control. We even took a shine towards the exhaust note: a grumble that grew into a bolder tone as it gained steam but with muffled pops on the follow-through.
The 500 comes with disc brakes all around, and they offer great stopping power when the need arises. Owing to their lightness, there’s a great sense of progression to the stopping force, and emergency stops can be judged with ease. This is especially useful if you aren’t taking control of the gearshifts with the steering-mounted paddle shifters.
The Fiat 500 is impressive on all fronts: it offers just about enough power and tech to keep its rivals in check while pinning itself as a fun-to-drive vehicle. It achieves a feat that several manufacturers have failed to attain in recent times.
Overall, the Fiat 500 remains a welcome addition in an era in which characteristic designs are slowly ironed out in the name of modernism. Not only is it proud to flaunt its six-decade-old design to the masses, it does so in the kind of style and panache you’d normally expect from anything Italian.
Has the Fiat 500 aged well? We’d like to think so, and we even reckon it’ll stand true to its own for generations to come.
• Engine: 1.4-litre in-line four-cylinder
• Transmission: 5-speed automanual
• Power: 100hp
• Torque: 131Nms
• Paddle shifters
• Keyless entry
• Chrome exhaust tip
• Leather-trim steering wheel
• Steering-mounted controls
• 15-inch alloy wheels
• Bluetooth audio
• Front and rear fog lamps
• Daytime running lights
• 185-litre boot
• 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system