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Fiat's 500 style icon tested

2009-02-23 11:43

Lance Branquinho

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Fiat
Model 500 1.4 SPORT
Engine 1.4l, 16v
Power 74kW @ 6 000r/min
Torque 131 @ 4 250r/min
Transmission SIx-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 10.5 sec
Top Speed 182km/h
Fuel Tank 35l
Fuel Consumption 7.5l/100km
Weight 930kg
Boot Size 185l
Airbags Seven
Tyres 185/55
Front Suspension MacPherson strusts, lower wishbones
Rear Suspension Torsion beam
Service Intervals 30 000km
Service Plan 5 year/90 000km
Warranty 3 year/100 000km
Price R180 800
"Cute" and "cool" are oddly conflicting concepts. The way in which a Nintendo Wii allows you to settle family disputes with some simulated boxing is cute. How a Playstation allows you to race away your weekend family time conquering the Nürburgring is cool.

Question is, though, can cute and cool occasionally blend to render something unique? Something the market cannot help but buy into completely, despite the price?

If any industrialised nation has the innate ability to produce an übercool car with disarming cuteness factored in, it’s undoubtedly the Italians. Masters of branding, minimalist design and exorbitant pricing, they have perhaps done their greatest hatchet job ever with the new Fiat 500.

Don’t like the way it looks? Really? You’re not lying? Sure?

It might essentially be a Fiat Panda with some retro styling, but the Fiat 500 gets about as many people gushing over it in a parking lot as tourists do over Panda bear cubs at the Beijing zoo.

Perhaps you’re one of the manne and won’t admit to being taken up with its styling at a braai, but you do realise you’re absolutely kidding yourself. This little thing is an absolute design icon.

The blunt nose, round headlights, forward cab proportions and tall doors are all superbly executed retro chic. It has as much presence as Italian exotica retailing for a frightful amount more money.

Near perfect proportions, simple detailing. The 500 looks superb from all angles. Roof spoiler is Sport model's distinguishing feature, white side trim (R1 700) optional.

Our test car was Pasadoble red, had the optional five blade, split-spoke alloy wheels (R4 240) and its flanks were adorned with white chequered trim. Being a Sport model it had a little rear hatch spoiler too. It looked absolutely epic.

Svelte women turned their mobile phones twice to take pictures of it in traffic (ensuring they captured the full effect in both landscape and portrait view) and guys confided just how fetching it looked with the chequered trim and 15-inch mags when you pulled up at the pub.

Inside the styling tour de force continued with an amazing display of what thoughtful texturing and shapes can achieve with some pretty ordinary Fiat parts. Our test car, being a Sport trim version, did without the shiny gearshift surround found on the Lounge models.

The black steering wheel and instrument binnacle contrasted exquisitely with the exterior colour facia finish (red), which is very simple but so effective at imbuing the interior with unique character. A centre console mounted gearshift frees up some stowage space on the floor, and the tall cabin is quiet airy.

Although the 500 is diminutive (3.5m long, 930kg), it majors on safety, featuring seven airbags.

Fascia colour mimics exterior hue. Looks awesome, can radiate copious amounts of glare though.

Comfort and convenience is well catered for with a four-speed air-conditioning system (climate control is R3 710) and the neat Blue&Me handsfree system. The latter fuses Bluetooth technology and voice recognition with steering-wheel controls and digital audio file player portability through an USB point.

For local ownership, interior security is on the debit side with regards to a lack of lockable stowage space.

The 500 doesn’t feature a lockable cubby-hold up front, and the horizontal stowage tray framing the lower edge of the front passenger fascia may be spacious, but it’s perfectly exposed for redistribution via smash-and-grabs. This means your iPod, digital camera and manbag or handbag either has to go into the boot or go with you during daily appointments – which can become a bit tiring.

Fun machine

Riding on a Fiat Panda chassis, 500 sports a short wheelbase and is quite a tall car considering the proportions.

Suspended at the front axle by an independent, lower-wishbone se-up and front-wheel drive mass-manufacturing simple torsion beam at the rear, the blend is biased to provide ride comfort.

Our 1.4 Sport test car, with its Monte Carlo rally refugee paint finish and outlandish alloys, rolled on 185/55 tyres and despite the short wheelbase, ride quality was passable.

The 500 exhibits some body roll when navigating corners at the limit - understandable considering how tall it is in proportion to its wheelbase. Those 185/55 tyres provide a surfeit of grip though, and the ESP and ASR systems are well up to keeping everything neat in all road conditions, even if the steering feedback is not of the best tactile value.

More importantly, the 500 tracks confidently at highway speeds and in blustery wind conditions, which were dished up with requisite severity by the Cape summer South Easterly over our test period. With disc brakes all round boosted by ABS hydraulics - with electronic brake distribution and assistance – stopping power is hugely reassuring.

The 500 might only have 74kW to drive through those front wheels, yet thanks to its short throw, close-ratio six-speed gearbox and low kerb weight it replies with alacrity to clutch and throttle inputs. Raucous is how we remember the 1.4l, 16v engine from our experience with the Panda 100HP, and in the 500 it’s still a busy little four-cylinder.

Performance figures aren’t startling (0-100km/h in 10.5 seconds, tops out at 182km/h) yet the 500 is disarmingly endearing to drive, delivering a huge fun coefficient per kilometre with its neat road manners and a keen drivetrain.

My only issue with the 500 Sport dynamically was its driving position, which is maddening, even by awful Italian standards. I think Fiat looked at the way Vespa riders commute and thought the forward-leaning riding position, with your legs stuck in an "L"-shape would be quite apt for a small car. Well, it isn’t.

No matter how you adjust the Sport seats, the seatbase always reclines too deeply, leaving your legs essentially dangling towards the pedals, instead of resting upon them. Any notion of a long-distance friendly left footrest is laughable, too.

Despite this, the 500 has managed to do nearly the impossible - it has recreated the city car chic from its famous namesake, with all the contemporary features modern urbanites demand.

If you factor in all the trim, colour and option permutations there are 500 000 combinations, ensuring you can make your Fiat 500 pretty unique. These split five-spoke mags (R4 240) are the choice wheels though.


If you’re an industrial design lecturer, they would make you a tenured professor if you buy one of these. It’s just so simple and neatly done. 500 blends Fiat’s small car heritage with modern crash-safety requirements but without reducing the aesthetic to a ridiculous bubble shape. And you'd want one in red with the chequered white side strips. Really, you would – trust us.


Seat adjustability is an issue, as is the lack of lockable stowage space and the undersized infotainment centre console controls. Seven airbags make it reassuringly safe, though. Glare off the body coloured facia can be harsh when driving away from a rising/setting sun, although R1 170 for the tinted rear window does much to cure this. The hatch takes 185 litres, which is okay - rear seats are not really for long-distance adult occupation.


With a 1.4l engine behind that cute little nose, it’s not a hot hatch, but quick enough to not be squeezed out of traffic gaps. Stable at speed, the chassis does entertain body roll, yet overall grip levels are high. Economy is good, returning between 7.5- and 8ll/100km with the air-con running, yet the 35l tank severely truncates range – it needs to be at least 42l for local conditions.


Fiat 500, like BMW’s Mini, is a modern branding exercise. Both cars are triumphantly beaten on space and utility comparisons by cheaper, more traditional hatchbacks.

You don’t buy a Fiat 500 for its ability to provide a transport solution. You buy it as an image accessory, an ode to original design - 500 is the Dolce & Gabbana of cars.

It puts a smile on each corner you turn and if you can indulge, it's well worth it (especially the Sport with its range of outrageous paint and wheel options).

It might have the heart of a Panda – not such a bad thing, all things considered – yet the package is pure 60s Italian movie star. Contemporary city chic has never been this cute, cool or sensible.


"Everybody-loves-it" styling

Panda chassis renders an entertaining drive

Irrepressible image value


Interior packaging not perfect

Options can take the price beyond R200 000

Could have better NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) suppression


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