1 Feb 2008
FIAT launched its BMW Mini competitor in the early months of 2008, just over 50 years after the original ‘Cinquecento’ truly motorised Italy.
But unlike the post-war 500 original, the post-modern sequel switched from being an affordable two-cylinder rear-engine rear-wheel drive family car to a premium-priced, somewhat larger front-engine and front-wheel drive status symbol intended on providing profits for the surging Fiat brand.
Made in Poland and built off the second-generation (2003) Panda sub-B light car platform, the new 500 is 3550mm long, 1630mm wide and 1490mm tall, which still makes it one of the smallest new cars on Australian roads.
Three models were available from launch – the entry-level Pop, mid-range Lounge and racy Sport.
Powertrains were shared with other small Fiats such as the Punto, made up of a 51kW/102Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, a 1.4-litre petrol, and a 1.3-litre turbo-diesel (Pop and Lounge).
The volume selling 1.4-litre generated 57kW at 6000rpm and 115Nm or torque at 3000rpm, compared to the diesel’s 66kW at 4000rpm and 200Nm at 1750rpm.
All engines were available with the regular manual transmissions (including a five-speed for the petrol and six-speed for the diesel) or a Dual-logic sequential manual with automatic clutch.
The sequential transmission saved enough fuel for the Fiat 500 diesel to achieve a fuel consumption figure of 4.2 litres per 100km, Toyota Prius petrol-electric hybrid territory.
Fiat stuck to a fairly standard formula when developing the 500’s suspension, using MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam set-up for the rear.
All 500s came standard with seven airbags, while electronic stability control was standard with the 1.4-litre petrol-engined model.
Fiat mimicked the Mini’s massive array of options, including up to 12 exterior colours, three specification levels, 15 different upholstery combinations, nine different types of wheel rims and 19 types of external sticker kits, including racing stripes.
In late 2009, the open-topped 500C was launched in Australia with a sliding soft-top, "sardine tin" style.
In March 2011, Fiat's performance arm, Abarth, made its Australian debut with the Esseesse - a special Fiat 500 with 46 per cent more power than the standard fare.
Meaning SS in Italian, the Esseesse came with just one specification and a 1.4-litre 16-valve turbo-charged four-cylinder from the Fire engine family packing 118kW of power.
May 2011 saw a limited run of Ferrari-inspired Abarth 695 Tributo models priced at a cool $70,000 arrive in Australia, with 132kW and 250Nm wrung from the little 1.4-litre engine, mated with a five-speed robotised manual transmission.
A convertible Abarth Esseesse 500C arrived in November 2011, with the same power as the hard-top but with the 695 Tributo's automatic transmission fitted as standard.
Being 40kg heavier than the hardtop at 1075kg, the 500C's slightly blunted 0-100km/h acceleration time was 0.2 seconds slower at 7.6 seconds, while its top speed was 3km/h lower at 209km/h.