"Cute, fun and cool, Fiat's retro 500 is a hugely stylish, if slightly compromised small car choice."
With its retro styling, the Fiat 500 is seen by some as nothing but an expensive fashion accessory. However, as a rival to the established MINI and new Vauxhall Adam, the Italian manufacturer doesn’t need to argue its case for very long. Its compact bodywork and light steering make it easy to park, while the eager engines and slick gearbox mean it's great on the open road, too. There's a hot Abarth version that’ll crack 60mph in less than eight seconds, but it's not as entertaining to drive as a MINI Cooper S. Entry-level 1.2-litre Pop models are basic and do without kit like air-con and alloy wheels – but even they come with an MP3-compatible stereo, power steering and electric mirrors. Sport and Lounge models are more luxurious, and add equipment like Bluetooth and USB connectivity. TwinAir models are road tax-exempt and all versions get stop-start technology – making them cheap to insure and ideal for first-time drivers.
Fiat has deliberately made the 500's steering very light so that it's easy to manoeuvre around city streets and a doddle to park. The suspension is firm, though not uncomfortable, and the car has plenty of grip in tight corners. There's a range of petrol and diesel engines, but the 875cc TwinAir is the highlight. The tiny 85bhp two-cylinder petrol engine is lively and economical, and rewards enthusiastic drivers with its punchy performance. However, if you spend a lot of time out of town you’ll be better off with the frugal 1.3-litre Multijet diesel as it's much more comfortable on the motorway and can manage more than 70mpg. The manual gearbox is your best bet unless you really need an auto – as the Dualogic option is jerky and overpriced, and not suited to the tiny Italian supermini.
The Fiat 500 is perfectly comfortable around town, and it's reasonable on longer trips, too. The firm suspension has a decent amount of cushion and there's plenty of manipulation in the driving position. That said, the front seats don’t have much support for your lower back, and there's not a lot of adjustment in the steering wheel, but find a setup that suits and the 500 feels planted and refined. Rear legroom is tight and the sloping roofline means taller passengers will struggle for headroom, too. The diesel cars are the ones best suited to motorway runs, though wind and road noise can become quite intrusive.
Fiat's quality and reliability has lagged behind that of rivals in the past, but the 500's upmarket interior is much better. It feels like a quality product from behind the wheel and the fit and finish makes big improvements over Fiats of old. The company has worked hard to improve reliability, but the brand still languishes towards the bottom of the Auto Express Driver Power survey, with the 500 finishing a disappointing 81st place. However, at least in terms of safety, the baby Fiat scored full marks in Euro NCAP stringent crash tests. All models come with seven airbags and Isofix child seat mountings, as well as ABS and hazard light activation, which triggers automatically under hard braking.
As small cars go, the 500 has a decent-sized boot. At 185 litres, it's bigger than both the stylish Vauxhall Adam and popular MINI hatch, but trails behind the Ford Ka with which it shares a many of its parts. A split-fold rear bench is standard on all but the entry-level Pop model, expanding the 500's load area to 560 litres. There's plenty of room up front, with a light and airy feel – especially with the fixed glass sunroof. It's a different story in the back, though, where the sloping roofline and tight dimensions make the rear seats feel quite claustrophobic. The driving position is good considering the lack of adjustment in the steering wheel, while the dash-mounted gear lever falls neatly to hand. Factor in plenty of useful cubby holes and you quickly realise the 500 is deceptively practical.
Value for money
Despite the fact the 500 has been around since 2008, the baby Fiat remains one of the most fashionable small cars around. Cars like the Vauxhall Adam and Citroen DS3 have since arrived in an attempt to cash in on the 500's success but none is yet to make the same impact. Residual values remain strong, but there are plenty of good used examples for sale so it should be relatively easy to find a price and spec to suit. Electric windows, power steering and an MP3 compatible stereo are standard across the range but you’ll need to upgrade to a mid-spec car to get basic kit like air-conditioning.
No matter which engine you choose, all cars offer rock-bottom running costs. The 875cc TwinAir engine is great around town, but the 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel is a better bet if you do longer motorway miles on a regular basis. Stop-start is now standard across the range, meaning the diesel can now crack 70mpg in mixed motoring, while the frugal TwinAir emits a tax-busting 95g/km of CO2 and is exempt from the London Congestion Charge. All versions are cheap to insure and used values remain strong five years from the initial launch.