Car reviews - Fiat - 500 - range
Unmistakable styling, sprightly handling, Abarth race-car exhaust note, extended customisation options
Room for improvement
Soggy manual gear selector, breathless 1.2-litre Pop engine, only five-speed in manual Abarth, price creeping upwards
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7 Nov 2014
OUR day started in the entry-level $17,000 Pop, which was dressed up in a new colour to the range – Mint Milkshake.
The pastel green fits in to the range of playful and mostly bright shades, and compliments the blancmange-mould styling perfectly.
The same colour carries over to the interior where more style configurations are now also available, allowing owners to create interesting combinations, and the chances of bumping in to an identical 500 are slim – there's nothing worse than turning up to a party and meeting someone in the same dress.
Dark seat fabric looked sharp and blended well with the minty dashboard and light airy roof lining.
Given the diminutive outside proportions, it is obvious the interior space is not going to be abundant, but there is enough headroom to prevent the interior being claustraphobic, and an average sized adult could sit in the back.
Shallow foot-wells dictate a seating position which is more 'on' than 'in', but the upright posture is not uncomfortable.
In the driver's spot the position is typically Italian with short-leg, long-arm and not ideally suited to our 188cm tall tester, but the ride was still comfortable, if not particularly purposeful.
Mechanically nothing has changed in Fiat's smallest model and we think that is a good thing.
Macpherson struts at the front and torsion beam suspension at the rear gives the little Fiat a lively and responsive chassis aided by a very short wheelbase.
The little Fiat is not ideally suited to long out of town cruises where a majority of our day was spent, but when the traffic starts to build up and space on the tarmac becomes a premium, the 500 comes in to its own.
Quick handling, good visibility and small proportions allow the tiny hatchback to nip around with ease, and there can be few cars easier to park.
The Pop's 51kw/102Nm 1.2-litre is Australia's least powerful engine, but with a bantam-weight of under 900kg the engine doesn't have a sizable task.
Despite its free-revving nature and responsiveness, the tiny engine is a little frustrating, and animated stirring of the five-speed manual gearbox was necessary to make steady progress.
While 100km/h comes up eventually, two occupants on-board plus light luggage meant hills presented another challenge with no clear solution.
However, stumping up an extra $3000 gets you in to the Fiat 500 S and while that may sound like a big step up there are significant improvements with it.
First of all the asthmatic engine grows to 1.4-litres and pumps out a more useful 74kW and 131Nm, but the way the power is delivered is what makes the S engine a pearl.
Low down torque is not something any small capacity naturally aspirated engine does well but at 4000rpm the whizzy four-cylinder comes alive.
Between 4000rpm and 7000rpm the engine responds quickly, pulls strongly and sings a satisfying note, but despite our provocation it wouldn't use more than 6.7 litres of fuel per 100km. Driven more sedately Fiat states the official combined figure of 6.1L/100km (5.8 Automatic).
Despite its relatively tall profile, the 500 S resists rolling in corners well and communicates to the driver through nicely weighted steering and lively chassis.
Its super short wheelbase of just 2300mm allows rapid changes in direction and even very tight corners of the winding Victorian country roads were dealt with effortlessly.
Our test car was fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox, which in our opinion is essential for a little Italian hatchback.
Surprisingly the six speeds were spaced wide apart and not bunched up for a sportier close-ratio feel, which made cruising more economical but not quite as much fun when negotiating twisty roads.
The selector was accurate and well weighted but lacked feel and we would have preferred a more mechanical action.
S variants also get more supportive front seats with bright red or blue highlights, which were very welcome over the bench-like Pop seats when both cruising and winding through more technical sections.
The S also gets a major improvement to the drivers dash display in the form of a seven-inch thin film technology screen.
In place of the conventional needle gauges, the single-colour LCD screen displays a variety of information depending on the type of driving.
A central area displays vehicle speed, condition, entertainment and fuel consumption figures for example, while the surrounding region has a tachometer and fuel gauge.
With the dash-mounted 'sport' button pressed, the screen graphics change to red and a G-meter shows just how hard you are trying in corners.
The new screen does bring the Fiat 500 up to speed on rapidly advancing technology and improves the value of the otherwise basic car.
We would have preferred a larger more visible tachometer when in sport-mode and while the graphics do imply a more sporty setting not much else changes.
But if sporty is your focus then the final car of our drive-day is probably of greatest interest.
With a 1.4-litre turbocharged version of the S engine, Koni sports suspension and a fat body-kit, the Abarth 595 is the performance flagship of the bubble-car range.
Two versions of the hot-hatch are on offer with the Turismo from $33,500 plus on-road costs or a better equipped $36,500 Competizione, which we jumped in.
Right from the moment you sit in the super-firm Sabelt bucket seats, you know the Abarth is geared solely for enthusiastic driving.
The output of 118kW and 230Nm is not supercar territory but weighing just one tonne, the 595 manages 100km/h in 7.4 seconds and a top speed of 210km/h.
But as with a good comedian – delivery is everything and the Abarth delivers fun in bucket-loads.
Its small capacity forced induction four-cylinder is tuned for high-end power rather than gutsy torque, and stirring the gears to keep the revs up was a rewarding experience rather than lazily sailing along on a wave of torque in one gear.
Competizione variants have a bi-modal exhaust which sounds fantastic at low rpm and stratospheric above 4000rpm. The Abarth exhaust note is part Group-B rally car and part weekend-racer.
Its rock-hard ride could be exhausting on longer journeys but through tight turns and banking gradients the positive handling and short wheelbase were a delight.
The superceded Abarth Essesse had conventional dampers but the new arrival has a “frequency selective dampers” and the result is a big improvement.
Smaller vibrations still get through but large jarring bumps are dealt with far better than the outgoing variant without softening the ride or compromising the pin-sharp handling.
In high-speed turns the tail would become light keeping the turn-in sharp but it never let go despite the threats, however it is low-speed autokhana-like driving where the Abarth is most at home.
Dashing through sharp bends and roundabouts that would almost halt autobahn munching GTs was effortless for such a little but potent hatchback, with all four wheels maintaining good contact over varying surfaces.
The beautiful and finely upholstered Sabelt seats are standard in the Competizione only and suited our testers slender frame perfectly, but will certainly prove too hard and fitted for some drivers.
Like the 500 range, the new 595 has extended interior and exterior finishing options but the Trofeo grey paint with tan leather of our test-car had been matched by someone with good taste.
Its chunky steering wheel is a bit too big for such a small performance-focused hatchback and there was occasional elbow/knee contact and the one-way steering adjustment was of limited help.
With such a light kerb-weight the Abarth has very low inertia and doesn't have to resort to electronic stability control, expensive carbon-ceramic brakes, fuel-guzzling engines or advanced aerodynamics to make incredibly quick pace.
To an extent that principle applies to the Fiat 500 range too.
The Fiat 500 and Abarth range succeeds through a very simple principle of keeping everything minimal.
Styling is simple, classic and likeable. Equipment is spartan but has all the essentials and with lightweight compact construction no fancy electronics or complex drivetrains are required to produce a beautifully rewarding drive.
If only that price-tag could have been kept just as minimal.
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