Dante Giacosa’s original 500 was an industrial design master class for mobilising Italy’s poor after the war. Fiat’s nuova 500 springs from no such noble sentiment; it is meant to convince the focaccia-buying classes there is an alternative in the baby premium market to the ubiquitous neue Mini.
Fiat’s incessant marketing of the car has tried hard to convince us this is a modern design classic, and rendered in the metal it is desperately pretty. In that shade of red that only the Italians seem able to mix, it stands out. I have never driven a car that has drawn so many favourable comments from complete strangers—traffic lights and petrol stations have suddenly begun turning me into an impromptu spokesperson for the thing.
External beauty does not always translate to inner beauty. Entering the cabin, the first thing that strikes you is just how colourful it is—the main panel of the dashboard is matched to the exterior colour. In red, with the binnacle, climate controls, stereo and steering wheel all in contrasting ivory, it’s a joyful reminder of how easy it is to jazz up an interior with contrast and shade. Not all combinations will be as successful though, so spec wisely.
It’s only once your attention wanders from the neat concentric speedo and rev counter that you notice everything else below the belt line is unremitting cheap grey crackle finished plastic, and just how they managed to build this thing for the price. Moulded-in cup holders, non-separate speaker grills, the handbrake doesn’t even get a separate gaiter. Right next to the handbrake is another ghastly cheap grey lever, the height adjuster for the driver’s seat. I lost count of the number of times I got the two mixed up—not a mistake to make when you’re doing J turns on a council estate . . .
Despite it’s proletarian undercarriage—the 500 is a Panda in a party frock after all—this is a car that, in the best tradition of small Fiats, simply begs to be driven on its door chrome handles. The 1.3 mulitjet diesel engine, despite its diminutive capacity and modest outputs (75bhp and 105 lb·ft respectively), is eager and responsive right the way up to its 4500rpm redline. With only 960 kg to haul around, there’s a noticeable swell in power once the tiny turbo comes alive, and the unit is quiet unless you really grind the pedal to the carpet, when it emits a not unpleasant thrum.
What will really make you smile is the way the car never feels slow, even in fifth at motorway speeds; it never feels breathless and always feels like it has more to give. Longish ratios help, although first is probably a touch under geared for fast getaways from the lights, as you’re at the limiter seemingly before your hand has left the gear knob. The gearshift is finger light, and occasionally confused by a swift third to second downshift, but otherwise fine.
Oil burners often get a bad reputation for royally ruining a car’s handling. No such nose heaviness here—the steering is accurate and responsive, but not particularly bothered by anything approaching feel. Turn in to a corner and once you’ve got a bit of speed on, roll becomes pronounced, the top hat styling pushing the body over to quite a degree. Avoid bumps mid swerve; you’ll think the rear suspension has become unbolted such is the severity of the resulting tank slapper. The outside rear squirms quite noticeably under load—perhaps the rear end just needs a fortnight’s worth of organic farmers market produce in the boot to weigh it down. All this bob and weave in the bends doesn’t mean big car ride. You can feel each wheel plonking in and out of disturbed urban tarmac surfaces, on less wrinkled roads it never truly settles down. Road roar would on journeys numbering hundreds of miles, have you reaching for the pain killers thanks to a tire compound undoubtedly chosen for economy over grip or comfort.
Comfort in the back is of the front seats right against the rear seats variety, and you’ll have to spend time with the options list for such modern motoring essentials as air con, a split fold rear seat and alloy wheels. Don’t bother with the Blue and Me integrated Bluetooth and media player. The hands free works fine but everything else is a voice-activated disaster.
So what we don’t have is new small car stuffed with big car quality and equipment. What we do have is a brilliantly styled, sorted, fun to drive small car that pulls off perhaps the hardest trick of all, that of making you feel good every time you use it.