Reviewed By Mark Nichol
The Fiat 500 is getting on a bit now, released in 2007 as a riposte to the massively popular BMW-era MINI that landed a few years earlier in 2001. Fiat won’t admit that, obviously, but it’s almost certainly true. Just like the MINI, the 500 is based on a bona fide classic: the original Fiat 500 ran from 1967-1975 and was basically Italy’s national runabout. And also just like the MINI, this modern take on the 500 has proved hugely successful for Fiat.
That said, while the modern MINI is now in its third generation, the 2007 Fiat 500 is still in its first, albeit it had a minor facelift in 2016. In 2020 Fiat released a brand new Fiat 500 but decided to make it electric-only, and so chose to keep selling this model alongside it.
What’s Good About It?
Just look at it. It might be about 150 years old in car years (most models have a seven-year cycle) but it looks as youthful and cool and fun and funky as ever. It’s Elizabeth Hurley. Or Pharrell Williams. Those looks, and that style, and the sense of uniqueness, largely overcome the 500’s various shortcomings.
Mainly though, driving the 500 comes with a sense of old school charm. It’s so small, so dinky, that it’s perfect for town driving. Its tight turning circle, super-light steering and miniscule dimensions make it easy to park and manoeuvre, and the latest 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol ‘hybrid’ model (we’ll come to why we’ve used the quotation marks shortly) is both economical and characterful. You’ll get a good 50mpg around the doors, which by any standard is great.
The 500 just screams “young person”, which will of course preclude it from big swathes of buyers who just don’t want that particular image, but getting this much youthful fun in such a cost-effective package gives it huge appeal for many. It definitely remains the most interesting little city car, MINI aside, possibly.
What Could Be Better?
Throughout its existence the 500 has had myriad trims, engines, special editions and the 2016 update, but it’s still fundamentally the same car, which means in many ways it’s showing its age. It won’t surprise you to hear that the cabin is a little cramped, given the diminutive stature of the thing, but the lack of ergonomic adjustment means that anyone approaching 6ft and above will really struggle with the driving position; the seats don’t drop down properly, the steering wheel doesn’t have reach adjustment, and the pedals are really close together.
The 500 also tends to come undone at higher speed, where it suffers from quite a lot of wind noise through the window seals, the engines seem a little louder than you might want, and the ride quality that goes from settled at low speed to crashy. It really does feel like a car designed for the city, and it’s not as good as more recent city cars like the VW Up and Kia Picanto at dealing with motorway speeds.
It’s also small, of course. Very small. It’s a four-seater on paper, but only the littlest folk will be able to spend any time in the back of a 500 without starting to feel hemmed in. The boot, at 185 litres stretching to 500 with the split rear bench dropped, is small even compared to other city cars; the Kia Picanto’s boot is 255-1010 litres. Yep, that’s more than twice the 500’s maximum capacity. Beyond that, you can’t even fold the rear bench all the way down unless you’ve got the front seats pushed right forward. This is not a practical car. But then, you knew that right?
What’s It Like To Drive?
Interesting. Not great. Not very refined. Not very modern. But interesting all the same. Again, the ergonomic issues make the 500 a challenge for taller people, but even without that the car has a slightly uncouth manner. It’s much better at lower speed, where the ride is comfy and fairly settled, and the light steering and tight turning circle make it brilliantly easy to position and park. One ergonomic feature the car does get right is the position of the gearbox, though, placing the shifter high up on the dashboard a hand’s width from the wheel. It really helps give the 500 a compact, fun sort of feel especially when you’re driving a little more enthusiastically. So while it’s true that the 500 isn’t bursting with feel through the tyres – albeit the Abarth versions are, if you want that sort of thing – there’s a certain charm about driving the 500 more quickly. The corners of the car are easy to judge, it changes direction rapidly…it just has an old school rough-and-tumble nature.
The 1.0-litre hybrid engine in particular is a highlight. It’s not especially punchy because it really doesn’t have much power (70hp) or torque (92Nm, peaking all the way up at 3500rpm) but it’s fun to work because it sounds great – a proper loud three-cylinder growl. This is the engine we’d recommend over the 1.2-litre four-cylinder unit.
So yes, there’s a lot to criticise. You’ll not enjoy the high-speed noise or ride quality especially, nor the way your feet catch together on the pedals, nor the fact that the roof seems too close to your head for comfort, but it’s all pleasingly manic, and that will be more than enough for plenty of folk.
How Much Will It Cost Me?
Not much. To explain the ‘hybrid’ thing then, do not be fooled into thinking it’s like a Toyota Prius. There’s no electric-only driving here. Instead it’s the mildest of mild hybrids. The mildest green thing ever. It’s Fairy Liquid. And funnily enough it does clean things up a bit. It links a three-cylinder no-turbo petrol engine with a fat starter motor on the crankshaft, which itself is powered by a 12V battery.
It gives the car a little boost that you won’t notice, and it also assists the engine a bit when you’re cruising. The result, though, is genuine 50mpg+ fuel returns in real life, and around the doors too. That’s a good 10mpg better than you’ll get from the 1.2 model, albeit that engine is a little quicker and quieter.
And of course the 500 is incredibly cost efficient to lease from Vanarama, starting under £150 a month and with very reasonable insurance rates. The Hybrid is in Group 9 (of 50), broadly similar to what you’d find with a VW Up, Kia Picanto or Toyota Aygo.
Anything Else I Should Know?
The amount of choice offered with the 500 is baffling. There are six models as we type this, plus three special editions, plus the Abarth stuff. And while we’d say that the 500 is the sort of car you could live with in basic Pop trim – plastic wheel trims etc. – we’d suggest you look at a Lounge spec car if you want a couple of comforts. Lounge, the second grade up, comes with alloys, air conditioning and a touchscreen media system.
But more important than that is safety. The truth is that the 500 is extremely popular among younger drivers, and while safety is always important, of course, it’s especially so if you’re leasing one of these for a younger driver. The 500 was awarded three stars from Euro NCAP, which may seem a little low but is about standard for a city car now; the Euro NCAP test is getting stricter and, for example, while the VW Up was awarded five stars in 2011, in 2019 that rating was dropped to three. Every Fiat 500 comes with seven airbags, stability control and anti-lock brakes.
What Alternatives Should I Look At?
Two leagues above the 500 for ergonomics, quality and dynamics. Hugely popular and for good reason.
**SEAT Mii **
SEAT’s version of the brilliant VW Group City car is the most ‘youthy’ of the three.
A mega all-rounder that’s fun to drive, good looking, high quality and practical.
Vanarama Verdict: 6/10
Driving the 500 comes with a sense of old school charm. It’s so small, so dinky, that it’s perfect for town driving.
Three things to remember about the Fiat 500:
It’s cheap to lease and run, especially for this much personality.
It doesn’t feel sophisticated but it’s as much fun to drive as it looks.
Don’t expect to fit into it properly if you’re taller.