Car reviews - Fiat - 500 - Pop
Design, affordability, zippiness, handling, cabin design, economy, individuality, refinement, that rollback roof, uniqueness
Room for improvement
Expensive for a sub-B hatch, needs more power, spec shortfalls, awkward driving position
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18 Aug 2016
Price and equipment
IS there a more successful retro reimagining of a classic design?Nearly a decade on, Fiat’s Type-312 500 has lost very little of its freshness and appeal, even as an all-new model is said to be waiting in the wings.
Three years ago, we tested the Series II Pop 1.2 hatch at $14,000 driveaway and eventually grew to love it despite ergonomic flaws. Now, currency pressures and other factors have made the same post-post facelift Series IV (S4) version $18K before on-road costs.
Fiat reckons that is more than addressed by the addition of a digital radio, extra sound deadening, revised front seating, an all-new touchscreen and multimedia system, heated mirrors, more chrome bits and 15-inch alloys.
That’s on top of seven airbags, a leather-wrapped wheel with remote controls, trip computer, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, voice recognition, USB input, air-con, remote central locking, power windows and tyre pressure monitors.
Strangely, however, there are some weird spec anomalies, such as no seat-height or steering wheel reach adjustment (at least the pre-S4 models came with a cushion base tilt mechanism), as well as no cruise control.
As part of 1800 changes, the S4 facelift also includes very subtly restyled headlights with daytime running lights, a mesh grille, revised bumpers, and redesigned tail-lights with a body-coloured cut-out. Don’t squint too hard trying to spot most of these.
By the way, just in case you were wondering, there was an S3 facelift in August 2014, bringing new colours, trim, updated multimedia screen on up-spec variants, and some minor chassis tuning improvements.
Back to the S4, ours is the 500C Pop convertible version from $22,000 plus on-roads ($25,000 500C Lounge pictured), plus $500 metallic paint, but minus a hatch.
Instead, it gains an electrically operated fabric sunroof ‘50s Nuova Cinquecento style, that slides all the way down to the top-hinged boot. So it’s technically now a two-door convertible sedan. And the only one of its type. The weight penalty is just 40kg.
Remember, the cheapest iteration of the (admittedly bigger) Mini Convertible starts from $37,900. And just like the British small-car icon, the Torinese toddler offers myriad personalisation options.
The good news is the 500’s interior remains a paragon of post-modern coolness and class. No doubt about it. From the solid yet stylish metallic-look plastic dashboard to the smart materials deployed, its allure is leagues ahead of any newer sub-B rival.
Because ours is a Pop, the Lounge’s more contemporary digital instrumentation isn’t available, but that’s OK since the analogue speedo/tacho combo still looks and works fine. The updated multimedia system with touchscreen interface is aeons ahead of the frustrating old mess, due to easy and intuitive operation.
A proper glovebox at last appears, replacing the lower-dash shelf. And there are new switchgear, cupholders, storage, and steering wheel spoke designs for claimed improved ergonomics.
For a car with such a petite footprint, the 500 is fine at accommodating four adults in reasonable (if upright) space and refinement, though the front half is better than the back. Along with a premium ambience, the interior is quiet and refined at speed to boot.
However, while the front seats do a fine job supporting their occupants, the old awkward driver’s seat/wheel relationship remains, and in fact is made worse by the lack of any seat height adjustment. The steering column only moves vertically as well, limiting remedy possibilities.
Additionally, rear seat access is tight, headroom is tight for taller folk, it’s a two-seater-only proposition, and the backrest is noticeably upright. On the other hand, folding that down increases luggage capacity from a useable 182 litres to 520L (aided by a space-saver spare beneath the floor), so going for the 500C isn’t entirely about throwing practicality to the wind.
And speaking of which, the electric fabric roof (which is basically an elongated sunroof rather than a full-folding convertible), whirrs back to either just ahead of the rear occupants, or all the way down to the base of the glass rear window, for an appealing open-top cabriolet feel at a touch of a button.
Going full alfresco does let a fair bit of wind buffeting in at speed, but otherwise the convertible set-up is surprisingly well thought out. Even on a wintry evening, the heater and fixed side windows do provide sufficient protection from the elements for all four occupants. And when erect (possible even on the move), the roof is taut and sealed enough for the Fiat to feel like a regular closed coupe.
Engine and transmission
Smooth, reasonably economical, and peppy enough not to feel too sluggish around town, the 500C Pop’s ageing 51kW/102Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine does only an adequate job in propelling the Italian sun-chaser around.
Around town acceleration is fairly sprightly, especially if you’re willing to rev that sweet little engine and row the slightly notchy five-speed manual gearbox, and once up and going up to legal freeway speeds, there is definitely enough to keep things on the move.
But beyond that, response is leisurely at best, especially when overtaking or just wanting to burn, say, a slow bus away from the lights. Having said that, the 1.2 is fairly frugal, averaging less than 5.0L/100km on the official combined cycle. Surprisingly, it is also preferable to the Lounge’s stronger but coarser 1.4, while the irritating Dualogic robotised semi automatic is to be avoided.
Time for a new generation of powertrains, Fiat.
Ride and handling
Fiat has not evidently revised anything underneath the 500C, but then on the whole, it remains a fairly progressive and involving steer, and accurate and enjoyable handling and high levels of roadholding security. Perhaps a bit more feel from the helm would not go astray, but ultimately there is nothing wrong with how the Pop 1.2 drives dynamically.
Being on 15-inch wheels, the Italians have wisely chosen to prioritise ride comfort over out-and-out athleticism on the base convertible, with absorbent and well-insulated suspension being the welcome upshot. While there is some bodyroll through fast turns, the chassis does ultimately gel together benignly.
Secure and fun to drive, but smooth enough to handle most urban road ruts without trial.
The brakes, on the other hand, seem a tad too over-sensitive, so beware. Not that they don’t do their job properly – the Fiat hauls up quickly and without fuss.
Safety and servicing
Tested by Euro NCAP all the way back in 2008, the 500 S1 scored a five-star crash test rating. The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) has not conducted any testing on this car.
Fiat offers a three-year/150,000km warranty, with intervals at 15,000km or 12 months. And while there is no fixed-price servicing, a servicing calculator can work estimate the cost on-line.
The 500C Pop 1.2’s design and execution put it firmly into subjective territory. No other micro car offers anything like its design, prestige, refinement, charm, uniqueness, and character. And that’s before you factor in that seductive rollback roof.
Seen in that light, even at $22,000, the Fiat remains something of a bargain.
Which means that even in the cold hard light of objectivity, the 500C does actually make sense. If you’re not overly tall there is more than enough space for four people the engine is strong and willing (if a little breathless out on the open road ultimately), and the refinement and ambience are right up there. Resale is also likely to be better than most baby cars.
But the spec shortfalls (no cruise is annoying) and weird driving position are serious pitfalls, so try before you buy. Otherwise, the inherent rightness of this retro remake has remained robust for almost a decade for a reason.
Mazda MX-5 1.5 Roadster from $31,990 plus on-road costs
Another retro design of sorts, the Lotus Elan S1-inspired MX-5 has evolved brilliantly over the last 27 years, to the point where the latest is the greatest, with flair, balance, tactility, refinement, and efficiency to savour.
Drive one before you die.
Mini Cooper Convertible from $37,900 plus on-road costs
It’s a big jump to the British design icon, but the third-gen BMW Mini is all ground up with a superb turbo triple powertrain, comfy and spacious interior, excellent dynamics, and a decent ride if you order the optional (and mandatory) adaptive dampers. Expensive though.
Citroen DS3 DSport Cabrio from $36,590 plus on-road costs
The peppy French contender has a great engine and there is a lot of high-end feel to the interior. More style focused than the others here.
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