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Car reviews - Fiat - 500 - Pop

Our Opinion

We like
Ageless style, funky cabin, new-found value for money, TwinAir engine in Lounge variant, five-star safety rating, headroom
Room for improvement
Firm ride, clunky robotised manual transmission, driving position, no more manual gearbox option with TwinAir engine

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Fiat logo7 Jun 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

WE TURN the key and there’s something missing. We put our fingers on it almost at once. The characterful, thrumming burble of a two-cylinder turbo engine.

Ok, we’re being picky. See, the new $14k Fiat 500 in which we are sitting is the headline story in the company’s refreshed, and discounted, Australian offering.

Until recently, the base 500 cost, in real terms, about $7000 more than the new entry version. But what it did offer in return was Fiat’s TwinAir engine, a hilarious throwback of a powertrain, a two-cylinder turbo dynamo with more personality than a Labrador puppy.

Fear not, for that engine remains a fixture further up the range – albeit with a new caveat that we will discuss later – but the base Pop we’re driving now comes with an older and (incongruously) slower 1.2-litre four-cylinder unit.

Its 57kW/102Nm outputs don’t sound like much, but then again it only has to lug about 900kg of car. Despite our reticence, it’s actually a perfectly acceptable engine for inner-city driving, at least with the five-speed manual gearbox as tested.

It does lack the off-kilter thrum of the three-cylinder units in the Up, Micra and Suzuki Alto, but on the plus side came close to matching Fiat’s 5.1 litre per 100km economy claim.

It also – and this goes for all versions – has a quick electric steering system somewhat devoid of feel and with a larger than average turning circle. But despite its tallboy styling it manages to stay pretty flat in the corners.

The Pop rides on the the highest-profile wheels of any variant, but even in has notably firmer ride quality than the Up, and wind noise becomes a factor at speed.

But forget this for a moment, because more important to target buyers, if we can be so bold to suggest it, is the style factor. And in this department, Fiat had no corners to cut.

That unmistakable, retro bubble visage remains, a nod to the original Bambino – it’s still a looker, and stands out like nothing else for the money. Plastic wheel hubs aside.

Inside, things are just as cheerful. Contrasting plastic dash inserts to match the paint, a high-mounted gearshifter and – thanks to that high-roof styling – plenty of room. No squeaks or rattles either.

Standard equipment includes seven airbags, Bluetooth and USB connections via a Windows-based system called Blue&Me (which syncs up a phone via voice control in quick time) and daytime running lights.

The only real downside in here is the rather infuriating driving position, with offset pedals, the lack of a decent footrest and no steering wheel reach adjustment. You sit on this car, not in it.

Note, we’ve only tested the hatch versions here, but Fiat will sell you a retracting soft-top cabrio for an additional $2400. They’ll also replace the manual with an auto for $1500 (more on that later).

Moving up through through the revised range, we find the Sport. At $16,900, it’s still cheaper than the old base version. In exchange for the extra money, you get a larger 1.4-litre engine with 74kW and 131Nm matched to – in our car – a six-speed manual gearbox.

You also get a bodykit and rear spoiler, a Sport button that modulates the throttle and steering, better-bolstered seats with red stitching, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, 15-inch alloy wheels, larger brakes and privacy glass.

Frankly, it’s worth the money if you can stretch, with notably zippier performance, while that extra gear ratio (the Pop has only five speeds) is welcome at highway speeds. No cruise control is a burden, though.

Aesthetically, those alloys, plus the subtle kit and cabin enhancements give it an extra dash of cosmetic pizazz.

Whether it makes more sense that a similarly priced but bigger Volkswagen Polo or Ford Fiesta depends on your point of view. We personally consider it a cheap Mini rival rather than an undersized rival to conventional light cars.

We mentioned that sweet little 63kW/145Nm TwinAir engine before, and while it doesn’t feature in the two entry versions, it’s still available for $20,300 in a newly dubbed Lounge variant, which also adds a fixed glass roof, climate control, idle-stop and chrome bumper accents.

As ever, the tiny 875cc turbo two-pot sounds vaguely like a lawn mower, and while it has less capacity than many road bikes, it goes about its business with vim and vigour. We adore its off-kilter warble and the endearing little thrum it made when on throttle. It sounds a little anaemic at low revs, but once you’re buzzing above 3500rpm it comes alive

But here’s the rub: for some bizarre reason, Fiat has ditched the option of a five-speed manual gearbox, and now only offers a clunky automated manual transmission.

This transmission is essentially a dry clutch manual gearbox fitted with an electronic actuator that changes gears itself. Fiat says it’s lighter and more frugal than a regular torque converter automatic.

It’s also laggy and fussy, with gear changes as pronounced as a regular manual, but without the driver input. This same transmission is offered across the range, incidentally.

Still, we might be getting sidetracked. The revised 500 range retains the positives and gets new-found value for money – dodgy transmission or no. And really, it was the value equation that prevented this car from taking off here.

So, despite our issue with the lack of a manual TwinAir, Fiat can confidently expect to sell as many as it can gets its hands on.

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